Marcellus stared up at the ceiling. “Your father had been obsessed with death for quite some time. I can’t say why or how it started, except that it had something to do with your mother. He carried in him a passion, a fervent and feverish desire to conquer death.” The mystic looked down at Karina, his lips pressed together tightly. “Not only to shed his own mortality, but for you as well. We who you know as his advisors, his inner circle, were invited to his court from far and wide because of two things – our knowledge of alchemy and our experiments with immortality.”
“Alchemy?” Karina asked softly. “Experiments? Did you-?” she took a step forward, her hand rising to grasp at her sword before she checked the impulse. “Did you experiment on my father?”
“No,” Marcellus shook his head firmly. “No. Not until…” he sighed and glanced at his fellow mystics. “We carried out our experiments on animals, or prisoners. Villagers who had died in accidents. Soldiers bodies brought in from the battlefield. Never on the king.”
“Until?” she prompted coldly.
“Until we succeeded,” he said softly. But the words were not the triumph Karina had expected to hear. Instead they were pained, almost guilty. “His obsession with mastery of death had spiralled out of control over the years. We should have known. We must have known. But his obsession paved the way for our work, and so perhaps we ignored it. We found a way to arrest the process of death in an animal. A farmer’s pig, sick from something I can’t recall. It wasn’t cured, yet it didn’t die. We needed more time to study the effects. Were they permenant? Were there consequences? We didn’t know!”
“What does a pig have to do with my father?”
“Somehow the king found out. He demanded we use our method on him. We refused. He insisted. When we continued to refuse, he…” Marcellus took a slow breath and looked Karina in the eyes. “He poisoned himself, child. To force our hand. And it worked. What choice did we have? The poison was fast acting and exotic. Curing it before there was lasting damage would have been nearly impossible. So we did what we had to do. And it worked, or seemed to.”
“Worked?” Karina asked aghast. “You made my father immortal? Kept him from dying?”
“If only that were the case,” Marcellus told her sadly. “That night, your father stopped breathing. His heart stopped beating. He was, for all that we could tell, dead. And yet he spoke to us still. He watched us take our notes with the same keen eye he’d always had. He walked around the room. But as the days wore on the color drained from his skin, and he developed a… strange appetite. Examining the pig gave us some answers. Our method hadn’t granted perpetual life, it had only stopped death. The poor creature hovered somewhere between the two, as the king does now. By feeding the animal the same meals your father demanded, we observed another strange occurrence. Signs of aging and physical imperfections caused by time, up to a point, were undone.”
Karina took a moment to process what had just been revealed. At last, she looked back towards the door. “I don’t see the problem, Marcellus. My father is not dead, and he is still himself. If those are true, then I will see him.”
“The second of the two is questionable,” Marcellus warned her quickly. “Since that night the king has steadily become colder and more withdrawn. He no longer holds court in the throne room, and he has had his personal effects… relocated.”
“The crypts below the castle.”
Karina spun on her heel and pushed through the door. She paused in the hallway, one hand on the door frame, and looked back at Marcellus. “His appetites… the meals he demands. What are they?”
“It started as raw meat. Then he demanded it freshly killed, still warm. Now… the castle lost three servants before the rest started refusing to go below.”
She would have accused the mystic of malicious lies had he not looked so stricken. Instead, heart pounding in her chest, she asked one last question. “And to what end did you summon me here, Marcellus? What am I to do?”
“See your father, since you will not be dissuaded” he answered. “And then… then do what you feel you must.”
The crypts below the castle had never been a place Karina liked to visit, even when her father insisted they visit her mother’s tomb once a year. Despite the torch she carried they seemed darker now, colder and more damp.
“Father?” she called. The words bounced off of the cold stones, each returning echo imbued with a slightly different timbre until it seemed a chorus of imposters was mocking her. “Father, it’s me, Karina.”
She pressed on until she caught sight of a strange glow amid the tombs, a pale blue light that was as steady as the glow of the moon. Her feet knew the way forward, carrying her toward the glow as her mind slowly caught up. Mother… her mother’s tomb was up ahead.
“Father?” she tried again, shivering involuntarily as the chill of the place leached through her armor.
The torch sputtered and died in her hand. She didn’t bother relighting it – the glow from ahead was more than enough to see by now. She stepped through a stone archway and found the dead king waiting for her. He was as Marcellus had described – pallid colorless skin, darkened eyes that seemed to stare into the distance even as he looked at her, and younger than she remembered him. He still wore his crown.
“Father?” she tried a third time, mindful of the smell of death that pervaded the room.
“Karina,” he answered, voice smooth and strong. “At last. Come, daughter. Your mother and I have been waiting.”