I was playing through TES III:Morrowind recently, and I came across three books in a necromancer dungeon: Darkest Darkness, Arkay the Enemy, and N’Gasta, Kvata, Kvakis.I remembered these from years ago, and was excited to see them again: these are necromantic books you can actually read in-game–they’re short, and they give you a bit of insight into the beliefs and ideologies of the black mages you’re going up against. My favorite was A Game at Dinner, which was a sort of epistolary novel from a spy to their dark lord.
I’m writing a new story about the necromancer Yute, who I spoke about in my last post about the psychopathic mind, and one of the main plot points of the story is his own manifesto, The Nokizi. The Nokizi is meant to be a book similar to Arkay the Enemy: something to be passed around and read by the initiated members of the necromancer community.
But ever since I first conceived Yute, I wanted his necromancy to be at odds with the popular ideas of the day–I imagined him as an unorthodox figure, a radical other necromancers would be wary of, like Malcolm X or Timothy Leary. As soon as I imagined him, he needed an establishment to rebel against.
The Nokizi is Yute’s critique on the current state of necromancy and the major figures whose work has influenced it. These figures include Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail, all three of whom have achieved a different kind of immortality and huge followings of acolytes. These three are sort of like Hindu gurus who promise their followers eternal life and enlightenment if they follow their teachings. Yute, meanwhile, is based off the Bodhidharma, the iconoclastic founder of Zen in China.
I imagined that Yute brought all of his new ideas before the gurus first, expecting to gain praise and recognition from the masters and cement his position as a new master. It would be a sort of “look at me, I found a new path that is undeniably better than all of yours, and now you must admit it.” Instead, he was laughed and jeered out of their temples and abodes and derided by all their students, one after another. Yute, not one to take humiliation well, devised his Nokizi as a critique of the establishment that rejected him, and a manifesto for his new method and philosophy.
The actual critique is a blend of mathematics, paradoxes, parables, German philosophy, and Rinzai Zen, with the goal of showing that 1) Amassad, Togorun, and Banasail are all going about immortality in the wrong way, 2) the current conception of time and the self are wrong, and 3) that immortality seekers should employ mathematics, not body-modification or other techniques, to achieve immortality.
At the very end of the Nokizi is an encrypted portion, along with the promise that anyone who solves the cipher will gain the secret to his new method. The idea is that, though the necromantic community rejected him before, he is willing to allow converts into his new method if they are clever enough. But it’s all a trick–the insanely complicated cipher encrypts only a bunch of gibberish and nursery rhymes, as a giant, spiteful fuck-you. “You had your chance to be my acolytes, and you laughed me down,” is Yute’s internal reasoning. “So I’ll show you what you’re missing, offer you my secrets, then laugh at you.”
When I think of necromancers, I imagine a cross between a Zen Buddhist monk, an amateur surgeon, and a hardcore survivalist preparing for the end of the world. It’s not about raising an army of the dead and taking a kingdom, it’s about being the last man standing when the Sun falls out of the sky. It’s about living forever. This is someone with the apocalypse constantly on their mind, thinking of contingencies. That obsession with survival made me think of an astronaut’s space helmet, a kind of sealed, self-contained piece of headwear that could protect the skull and seal out dust, fire, and the vacuum of space.
I started to wonder what a survivalist necromancer’s helmet would like, so I drew on some of my favorite helmet designs from across all kinds of media, from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied to Daft Punk and TES III: Morrowind. The final product was appropriately macabre, frightening, and functional for someone bent on eating souls and living forever.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: The Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm
(If you haven’t read my long-ass post about how Morrowind should be the gold standard for fantasy worldbuilding, read it here)
Morrowind’s Bonemold armor is so damn cool: crafted from bonemeal, the individual pieces of armor are molded in hard, light shapes, like the lacquered wooden armor of samurai. Each Dunmer House has its own style of armor, with their own custom helmets and shields, each reflecting their own unique character. House Redoran’s helmet had a shawl to keep out the dust and House Telvanni had some kind of insane squid helmet because they’re weird-ass wizards who live in mushrooms. But the single coolest helmet in the history of fantasy gaming is the Native Chuzei Bonemold Helm.
The swept-back design with the swooping crest on the back and lack of conventional eyeholes in favor of dual slits made it look intimidating, alien, and sort of like a grinning, demonic face. I loved this helmet, and I wanted to steal its design for any kind of helmet I made in the future.
Daft Punk: Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s helmet
I have an obsession with Daft Punk, especially their helmets. There’s something about the anonymity of masks that makes the wearer larger than life. My favorite version of Guy-Manuel’s helmet is still the one used in ELECTROMA.
When I was still in high school, I actually attempted to make Guy’s gold and black helmet from a skateboard helmet, a motorcycle visor, and a paintball mask:
I loved the helmet design so much that I wanted to incorporate in my stories, which is where Guy Manuel’s helmet merged with the Chuzei helm to create the helmets that the Elves in my stories wear:
Elves in my stories are the end-products of generations of the pursuit of immortality: humans warped and altered into a completely different species. Their helmets, like my initial astronaut helmet idea, allowed them to survive the vacuum of space, like the starfish-headed Old Ones in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. And like other human necromancers, survival was the ultimate priority.
The skull-hugging shape, smooth lines and lack of conventional eyeholes stuck with me in particular. But that changed when I saw…
Neon Genesis Evangelion: EVA Unit-01’s helmet
Evangelion is my favorite piece of media, hands-down. Between the Kabbalah occultism, the Phillip K. Dick-inspired apocalyptica, the complex mathematics and existentialist philosophers snuck into the show, it is the Space Odyssey: 2001 of mindfucks. And they had some really cool robots.
There’s a rumor that Hideaki Anno, the creator of NGE, wanted the EVA units to be extremely complicated so that the famously aggressive Japanese toy industry wouldn’t be able to create action figures of them. In the end, we still got Evangelion canned bread.
The most beloved EVA unit, and my favorite, too, is Unit 01. It’s got a kind of kabuto helmet, and its giant, toothed jaws are both really cool and absolutely horrifying once it starts screaming and eating other EVA units.
Yeah, the EVAs are nightmarish homonculi made of human flesh and bone grafted onto mechanical parts, animated by trapped human souls with the capability for madness and rage. The reveal that EVA Unit 01’s helmet covers something approximating a metallic skull is one of the images from NGE that stuck with me. The teeth and jaw especially appealed to me.
Elfen Lied: Lucy’s helmet
Elfen Lied is the most violent, gory, and traumatic romantic comedy anime ever (only half-joking here). From the opening minutes of the first episode, a naked pre-pubescent girl sealed in a helmet from The Man in the Iron Mask starts vivisecting, decapitating, and ripping the literal hearts out of a team of security personnel in a juxtaposition of eroticism, innocence, and relentless, brutal gore.
And damn is that helmet cool.
Lucy’s helmet is relatively simple, both in its design and concept: round head and jaw piece sealed onto the skull to restrain a prisoner in a test facility. It looks suitably clinical, the kind of medical appliance you’d imagine would be in use in a telekinesis research facility. In Lucy’s case, wearing this helmet isn’t a choice–it’s forced onto her, as a means of control, as if they were trying to seal her skull in a container, like an airtight jar.
The Necromancer Helmet: THE GRINNING MAN
Building off the idea of “the crownless king,” the title I made for a necromancer who could survive decapitation, I wanted to create a helmet for a character who would keep their head sealed in a helmet like a safe. This would be Oroboro, the same necromancer mentioned in the Ergodica posts. From there, this character could actually substitute other people’s heads for their own, as a sort of voodoo: with possession of another person’s head, they could gain all of that person’s knowledge, speak in their voice, and communicate with their ghost. The idea emerged of a necromantic collector, someone who collects trophies from their dead enemies and binds their ghosts to his helmet by stealing their heads.
I imagined an eyeless helmet with a hinge on the front, so the entire thing could open like a pear of anguish, and a removable jaw.
I decided to describe the helmet to a friend of mine, Joel, who has done a lot of fantasy concept art in the past. This is what I told him:
“When you consume someone’s ghost or soul, you gain all of their memories, identity, and knowledge…he keeps the heads of people he values in his helmet, or their teeth embedded in it. The teeth are like quick-keys to call up the ghosts of those he wants to channel, and the head in the helmet is possessed. He’s supposed to be an abomination. The helmet and everything connected to it breaks every rule I could think of when it comes to magical morality…I’m not sure how I want the jaw mechanism to work–I was hoping you could help me figure that out. The goal of it is to be able to unhinge the jaw, so he can take abnormally large objects into himself, like a snake. As for the material, I was thinking of either iron or heavily pitted and varnished wood.”
After some back and forth about the lore behind the helmet, the magic and mechanisms, Joel produced this rough sketch, meant to depict an iron helmet:
Joel described his sketch like this: “I really liked the worked metal aspect around the teeth, like it’s been scratched or welded into shape to hold the teeth, so I ran with that. Tried to give it more of the welded look, it makes it look almost flesh while the rest of the helmet is obviously metal. I thought the concave shape around the teeth gave it a more unnatural look and gave the impression that you almost had to dig out some of the mask to find the teeth underneath.”
I loved Joel’s sketch, especially the teeth–they evoke the ravenous, all-consuming potential of the eyeless Langoliers from Stephen King’s story The Langoliers, as well as David Hine’s graphic novel, “The Man Who Laughs,” published by Self Made Hero, which was the inspiration for Batman’s Joker. I decided to dub this helmet “The Grinning Man.”
With Joel’s rough sketch showing how it all would fit together, I decided to do a sketch of my own based off Joel’s art, showing the complete helmet:
Necromancers can be a lot more than guys summoning skeletons. These are the people who are plumbing the depths of life and death, the decay of the body and the action of time, searching for the line between man and god, mortal and immortal. They can be horrifying in their own right, and they don’t even need zombies to get the job done. And they can look absolutely terrifying while doing it.
‘The crownless king’ is a necromantic concept I’ve had in my head for a couple years now, waiting to be woven into a story. It’s meant to be an honorific, a title, an honor. It came partly from Kabbalah, from the Tree of Sephiroth: the highest sephirot is Keter, the Crown, which is equated with the head of God, the King of Creation.
The ‘crownless king’ came up in one story, but the draft was never finished. The story was about chiromancy, the magic of altering and manipulating the human body. Here’s an excerpt from the story, which deals with the concept.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Samal looked down at the bailing knife in his hand, held it up to the light, and tilted it. He held it out to Iz.
One by one, he began unbuttoning his coats, jackets, and shirts, until the illuminated, tattooed skin of his chest was bare. When he was finished, Samal sighed.
“When I was growing up, there were seven hallmarks to a wizard: a name, a song, a card, a craft, a hand, a tongue, and tired feet. For Muzin, there were tattoos added in.”
Samal made eight points on his chest with his fingers, each one touching a different star. “The eight points of the world, the eight ports…the seven hallmarks and the tattoos show you’re bona-fide.” Samal shook his head slowly. “Real bona-fide wizards don’t die.”
Iz was staring at him. Samal could see his mind working.
“I’ve seen friends of mine take a bullet to the lung and keep laughing. One of them walked out of a hostel without his jaw. They knew the amount of blood in their bodies down to the thimble, and they could weave muscle faster than yarn. The only way to get seven hallmarks was to be a stitcher, bones, blood, or tissue. Now we’re back to just that. There’s only one hallmark left now, and it’s the crownless king. You ever heard of the crownless king?”
Iz shook his head slowly. The knife was getting tighter in his hand. Samal put both hands on his head.
“A crownless king is when you can take away a person’s head, sever it from the spine, and the person doesn’t die. They don’t drain blood, they don’t need air, they don’t eat food. Their body is perfect, no matter where you cut it. There have been twenty-two crownless kings in our age. My teacher was one of them.” Samal nodded to Iz. “Now, I’ll show you how to harvest muscle.”
Samal pointed at one of the stars on his chest. “You’re going to open me from the north to the south star. Half an inch deep. That’s this much.”
Samal held up a half-inch between his thumb and forefinger.
“If you cut too deep, it won’t matter to me. Just take your time.”
Iz’s body stiffened up, and his shoulders rose, but he didn’t say anything. His neck jerked to the side, then his arm, all the way down his body, like a puppeteer tugging on each joint. Then he stepped forward with the knife. With careful precision, he laid one hand on Samal’s chest and inserted the blade into the skin. With steady pressure, he dragged the tip down Samal’s sternum, watching the tip of the knife with rapt attention. Samal could feel the cold sensation of metal parting the skin, and almost shivered at the smoothness and ease: either Iz had a practiced hand at carving, or he was half-asleep.
Then it was finished. A thin line divided Samal’s chest, cutting the tattoos in half. He took the knife and made two more long cuts, perpendicular to the first, creating a tall ‘I’. He peeled back both wings of skin and revealed the wet, red muscle of his chest. Iz stared like was looking toward the horizon.
“No blood,” Iz said softly. “None of it’s spilling out.”
“It’s hemostasis. Instant clotting, and the rest flows along the flesh like a magnet. You did a good job, too. Half-inch.”
Samal sighed, and the muscles bulged outward with his diaphragm.
“You have to be careful with this, especially in the cold. All the heat escapes, and diseases can get right into the flesh. You have to be very careful.”
Samal reached in and made two incisions on either side of a length of muscle, about three inches long. With the tip of the knife, he lifted out the strand and set it in his other hand.
“When you’ve got a body like mine, it heals very quickly, but I have to eat food, drink, and rest. I’ll get this strand back in two days. Now, bring me your bowl.”
Iz brought him the little bowl of water, and Samal set the strand of muscle in it.
“You’re going to grow this strand, just like my body will grow it. I’ll give you the powder, and you sing to it. In a few days, it’s going to grow into a sheet. When it’s ready, you can start using it again. And when you’re finished with the skull, I’ll show you how to harvest your own muscle.”
Iz took the bowl. “How long did it take your teacher to become a crownless king?”
“It took him eighty-two years, I think.”
“Is he still alive?”
Samal bit his lip and exhaled through his nose. “No.”