Monday, May 9, 2011

Musings: Liches

"A lich is an undead spellcaster, usually a wizard or sorcerer but sometimes a cleric or other spellcaster, who has used its magical powers to unnaturally extend its life.

As a rule, these creatures are scheming and, some say, insane.They hunger for ever greater power, long-forgotten knowledge, and the most terrible of arcane secrets. Because the shadow of death does not hang over them, they often conceive plans taking years, decades, or even centuries to come to fruition."

What manner of being would willingly forsake their humanity for immortality and power? This question might at first seem easily answered by the flippant 'many', but when you stop and give it more thought, the leap from mortal to lich is a truly terrible one.

Think: their very touch causes paralysis. The sight of them causes beings of less than 5HD (probably 95% of all living creatures) to succumb to fear and flee them. Right there they are eschewing companionship, friends, loved ones. Again, this might seem obvious, a small price for a megalomaniac wizard to pay, but think on it: to never be touched. To never have friends. For a monster, this might be no big thing, but for a human being--ah.

Some group--it might have been the Soviets--did experiments on new born children where they refused to touch them after they were born. They discovered that these children wasted away and died without human contact. When you think of our greatest psychopaths and most depraved villains, they have all been fascinated by their interactions with others. They have craved understanding on their own terms, power over others, adulation, desire. That their methods resulted in the death and worse of their victims was part of the process; still there lay at heart a desire to interact for some cause or reason.

Now, to become a lich, you must be willing to forgo all such interactions forever. What kind of mind would gaze unblinkingly at the abyss of such solitude and willingly step over the edge? For sure they can surround themselves with other undead, vampires and the like, but these will never be friends, nor even trusted companions. No; with the creation of their phylactery the lich ceases to be human in every way. It is a form of death that is truer than undeath, for with that final step they sever all connections with their past and the being they once were.

Where am I going with this? I feel that any wizard that is willing to become a lich is by definition a more psychologically complex entity than the common 'wizard looking for more power' explanation. Becoming a lich takes such a particular mind frame, such an inhuman and tortured point of view that you can't just say, "Veldemar the Ashen became a lich upon realizing that he could have immortality and greater power by doing so." That simply doesn't do the leap Veldemar took justice. Why was Veldemar willing to pay such a price? What manner of life did he lead that brought him to such a point? What are his goals now that he is a lich, what manner of goals saw him through the process and caused him not to waver?

Posit Veldemar the Ashen, horrific master of grotesque tragedies. At the age of fifty three he creates a Phylactery, undergoes the necessary rituals, and becomes forevermore a lich. Shrivels to near skeletal appearance, becomes separated from the world by his fear aura and paralyzing touch, can now bathe in electricity and enclose himself in ice, can if he avoids violence live forever in this terrible solitude. Why?

Postit Veldemar at the age of twelve. A nervous youth, delicate, beautiful. Painfully aware of the transient nature of all living things, the ephemeral beauty of flowers, small animals, sunsets, tastes of sweets on the tongue, how quickly both pleasure and pain pass. An intense child, not given to violence or evil, but simply over passionate, prone to depressions and fits, seeing no value in running around with the others, but rather spending hours stroking a cat in the afternoon sunlight, watching how its fur shimmers, or standing in the rain, or staring into the heart of a fire.

Veldemar, age fifteen. A strange, fey boy, estranged from his tavern-frequenting father and overly attached to his mother. Obsessed with different girls in the town, obsessed with the stage, the parallel to life that it forms. Tormented now by the transience of all things, prone to sweeping his walking stick through banks of blossoms so as to destroy the flowers before they can fade.

Veldemar, nineteen and sent away by his father for traumatizing a girl, the third in two years, seducing her with his visions and poetry, and then when she was his, rapt and hypnotized by his mesmerizing words, how he slowly drew a small knife down her cheek and scarred her. How he cried as he confessed to his mother that her beauty pained him so, and how his mother, terrified, thrust him away. How his father came home to find Veldemar screaming and breaking the contents of their home. How he struck Veldemar down, and the next day sent him to the city.

Four years later. Four harsh years of working in the back of a restaurant, carrying out slops, beaten by his uncle, made to sleep over the inn's stable. Four years of turning away from everybody, refusing to make friends, to think, to feel. Numb. His only pleasure in the heart of this awful city lying in visiting the playhouse when he could save enough money, or volunteering to work at a small private library as a clerk so as to have access to the books. The library's owner catches him reading when he should be working; they engage in bitter words, and Veldemar's quick wit is discovered. The owner, a wizard of middle standing, takes a liking to the bitter boy, and hires him on.

Six years pass. Veldemar is twenty nine. An apprentice magician now, having impressed his master enough to earn tutelage. Delighting in his ability to manipulate the world with his will. Irrevocably in love with his master's daughter, Salessa. He seeks to impress her in all the wrong ways, fails. Still the world pains him, but now he is able to fight that pain with his own magical advancement.

Veldemar, thirty three, a prodigy. He feels his grasp on the world slipping even as he grows more powerful. He cannot bear the sight of a hummingbird in flight, wishes to snatch it and crush it in his fist. Cannot stand the strains of pure orchestral music. The more beautiful the world, the more it frets him, torments him. Only the stage and his love for Salessa holds him together, and for her he strives. Finally she understands the depths of his love, his despair, and swept away, agrees to marry him, falling under his spell.

Ten long years. Veldemar, forty three. More powerful now than his master. Respected, a highly appointed citizen. A great magic user. Master of the local playhouse, putting on one glorious show after another. But ah, the work it takes to smile and blend in! Only Salessa understands. Only she can keep him together. He has a private garden of orchids that he takes trembling delight in nurturing and then destroying. He breeds the most rarefied of song birds so that he can sever their vocal chords when their songs bloom. He buys the most passionate of art works so that in the privacy of his basement he can slowly take them apart and destroy them. Only Salessa holds him together, a crystal goblet that is resonating ever more violently to the frequencies of the world.

Forty six, and Salessa dies. He does not kill her, though in later years he can't be sure of this. Veldemar loved her so that he found a way to cherish her beyond her ability to handle. He brought so much pressure upon her that she burst, grew mad, killed herself. But was it his hand that moved her own? Was the weight that he placed on her shoulders too much? Never mind the scores of small nicks and scars that she bore from the years of his cutting her slowly, tenderly, while they made love. One night she could not bear the thought of another sunrise, and drowned herself.

Pain. Shock. The sky too large, the stars too bright, colors too gaudy, taste too rich. The world attacks him, and Veldemar retires from the Magic College, closes his city apartments and retreats to his country estate. Has all the windows sealed and curtained. The public assumes this is his right mourning, but in truth it's his last attempt to hide from the world.

He does not wish her back. She held him to life, held him in the light, for much longer than he should have bared. With Salessa's death, he is free to flee from life at long last. To give vent to his repulsion from it, repulsion made all the more piercing from his peerless appreciation of it. To rare an appreciation for beauty that turns a half turn with her death and becomes loathing without boundary. No longer does he content himself with songbirds and paintings.

Fifty. His magic arts have been directed at necromancy. He works alone, served now by the animated remains of his previous servants. Still directs the Play House, but now the pieces performed are macabre to the extreme, nihilistic and shocking. A bachelor once more, he begins to invite young women to his home, to court them, an impeccable suitor, but alas, each girl dies of natural circumstances, and soon he is considered cursed. But he is so charming, so melancholy, that for years still he pays successful court to women far and wide. Only when an enterprising young brother investigates further and finds dozens of preserved corpses of all the women in Veldemar's basement, their bodies defaced quite literally, does the truth come out, and Veldemar is forced to flee.

Fifty two. Two years on the road. He gives up all pretense of being a refined man, and becomes a beast for a time, murderous and foul. A string of corpses and disfiguring disease in his wake.

Fifty three. He meets Belinda, a necromancer of equal might. It is love, hatred, obsession. They fight, try to kill each other, make love, attack each other once more. For two months they debauch themselves, debase themselves, and then Veldemar, seeing that he is truly coming to love Belinda for all her sick twisted ways, kills her. He cannot risk becoming attached. Amongst her possessions he finds a tome directing him on how to become a lich.

Posit Veldemar the Ashen, horrific master of grotesque tragedies. At the age of fifty three he creates a Phylactery, undergoes the necessary rituals, and becomes forevermore a lich. Shrivels to near skeletal appearance, becomes separated from the world by his fear aura and paralyzing touch, can now bathe in electricity and enclose himself in ice, can if he avoids violence live forever in this terrible solitude. Why?

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