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Bone dust and Puppetmasters

By Larynn Avari

Part 1

 

I looked down at the plump
halfling woman beside me, her muscles rigid with anger and tension, the shrub
she was grasping shuddering violently as her body shook. I clucked my tongue
lightly, watching the reaction as she jumped and spun to stare at me.

 

"I've been wondering," I
breathed softly, "why your city council insisted on someone so young
accompanying me..."  I stopped without finishing as her angry gaze locked with
mine.

 

"Young and inexperienced?" she
finished my sentence in a whisper. "The city leaders do not doubt your ability
to find our children Larynn, they simply worry."  Her eyes flickered, moving
back to stare at my ears, or rather the tufts of silken fur that covered them.

 

"So they're worried I might
rescue the children from monsters, only to eat them myself?" I felt a growl rise
through my throat as she continued to stare at the ears my Raki mother had given
me.  "If they're so unsure of me why did they ask me to find the little ones,
and why did they send you?  Weren't they worried that I'd think of you as an
appetizer? Her eyes had come back to my face while I spoke, and as my last
invective hissed out her lips began moving. Not a sound emerged but abruptly I
could feel my joints locking into place, freezing me where I stood. She took a
ginger step forward, eyes filled with caution.

 

"I have trained as a healer
since before I could speak, I was sent to help any of the young ones who were
injured," her eyes hardened as she grew confident of my condition, "but I am not
helpless in defending myself, or others."

 

I could taste her magic in the
air, feel it pressing in to immobilize my limbs, which left my most potent
weapon free to wield. It was an oversight on her part, but not one I was
inclined to point out. I unleashed it with a hum, a tuneless melody at first,
pushing it from my body until I could feel it tingling on my skin; a barrier
between myself and her magic. Then, to her horrified fascination, I began to
whistle softly, filling the song with the strength of my magic. Suddenly I was
free, her spell swept away on the waves of magic my chorus had created. I leaned
in to the stunned hobbit lass, “I don't care about your council, but if you
consider me as much of a threat at that army that awaits us then we might as
well go back."

 

She stared at me, shock still
obvious in her face; and I waited, watching as it faded slowly from her.  She
had made her decision.  "We were told you were the only one who could bring the
babes back, we have no choice but to trust you." I turned and stared through the
edges of the forest, looking out at the mass of figures that stood watch between
the forest and our destination.  The halfling stepped up beside me. “I will
trust you because I must. You will have to get us through that army, they are
beyond my abilities.”

 

I laughed at that, and she
scowled at the sound, bitterness momentarily flooding her features.  “They sent
a journeyman healer and a mixed-breed song weaver to carry out a suicide raid on
an unexplored undead stronghold. Your people truly are desperate.” Her pride
pricked at that, and she turned away; in anger or shame, I didn’t much care, as
she’d so thoughtfully pointed out, this part was up to me. 

 

Suicide or not, it was the task
at hand. Reaching inside myself, I felt for my magic and, finding it stirred and
ready, I started singing. Soft notes and melodies began flowing through my
throat, a haunting, nigh on eerie refrain. Sending the song pouring through my
lips I freed it into the gathering dusk. She looked up at me with a quizzical
expression, clearly confused about what I was doing, and I worried briefly that
she might attempt to stop me from using the magic. Then I ignored her, losing
myself in the song of the night hunt, swept away by the essence of the predator
in the dark, creeping after helpless prey, unseen and unheard until the fatal
moment.  The magic in the song pushed out away from me, rolling like a wave
towards the mound entrance.

 

The army stood in ranks,
swaying in the light evening breeze.  Dozens of skeletons stood in neat ordered
rows, motionless and watching.  Around the edge of the undead paced mountain
trolls, moving heavily on knuckles and bunched legs. I could feel malevolence as
soon as my magic brushed the group, and it was strongest in the skeletons.
Though I could not see it at this distance, the evil presence burning through
their eyes might have shone with red fire, so strongly did it press against my
magic.

 

From her hiding place in the
dense brush beside me the halfling lass spoke into my trance. “Can you affect
the dead? Can you sever their link with the magic?”

 

“No.” The hoarse voice that
responded was foreign to me, even as I felt it pass my lips. “The unliving are
beyond my power as well; I can only touch the living.”

 

“There are only 6 trolls out
there,” she hissed, “and over a hundred undead, what can your magic do to help
us?”

 

A grim smile pulled at the
corners of my lips, “There are many reasons my kind are called ‘puppet-masters’,
little one, watch and you shall witness one of them.”  She flinched at the term
and stared fixedly at me even as I returned my own attention to our group of
foes.

 

My magic lay now upon the
ground like a carpet, spreading beneath the creatures as they walked through the
evening mist. I felt when the magic touched one of the trolls, felt it rising up
from the ground; soft and soothing as it formed around the bulky body,
blanketing it with my power. As the magic grew stronger I began to feel the
troll, I could hear his grumbling boredom at his menial assignment, his hunger
for something fresh and steaming and bloody, and most importantly of all, I felt
the troll’s weariness. This group had been standing guard for most of the day
now gone by and grogginess was creeping through both body and mind.

 

It was the work of a moment to
drain him as he passed between two ranks of undead; it was with the ease of
thought that I reached into the magic and pulled away what remained of his
energy. I watched with a grim satisfaction as the massive form tottered and
fell, crushing several of the skeletons surrounding him. I could only imagine
the snores that must have been deafening at a closer range. Bleached bone skulls
turned as the ground quaked, brittle fingers gripping broken, jagged swords
turned their evil attention towards the creature that had destroyed their
companions. I spared a glance from the growing mêlée to check on my companion. 
She was watching, openmouthed, as our enemies destroyed one another. I looked
back to see the other trolls come to the defense of their comrade as the
remainder of the skeletons also joined in the fray, bone chips and troll blood
filling the air.

 

We watched the battle in
silence; it did not take very long to conclude. The trolls were thorough in
their destruction, and had laid waste to the vast majority of the skeletons, but
ultimately there were too many of the undead. The last of the living beasts lay
in a crumpled heap on the ground, the five remaining skeletons struggling to
free their weapons from its body.

 

“Is this more to your liking?” 
She snorted and did not bother to answer me, reaching behind her bobbed hair to
free a massive two-handed hammer more than half as tall as she. Runes of power
were engraved on its head, strands of gold and some other metal woven around the
head and handle.  She held it close across her chest, scraping the head across
the darkened chainmail she wore atop her leather jerkin. She began whispering
what sounded suspiciously like a prayer, and it must have been for the runes on
the hammer began to glow with blue fire. She looked up from her prayer and I was
surprised to find the same cerulean flames flickering in her eyes. A shiver ran
down my spine when she spoke, her voice had gone suddenly throaty. “Let us
finish this, so we may begin the rest.”

 

From two thigh holsters I
pulled twin maces, light enough to wield simultaneously, but weighted and
spiked, perfect for crushing the odd skeleton. Cobalt and sapphires chased along
the length of each mace. On the crushing butt of each was emblazoned an emblem:
a great tree upon one, and a crashing sea upon the other. I rolled them in my
palms as I spoke to the halfling, “If you have, perhaps, a spell to blind them,
I think a blunt charge would be our best attack.”

 

She stared out at our group of
adversaries. “Then you should lead the way. Once you have engaged them in
combat, then perhaps you shall see what my magic can do.”

 

I took her at her word, and
started out through the brush bordering the clearing. As soon as my boots
touched the soft ground and thick grass I broke into a loping jog, eating up the
distance as I closed on the undead. 

 

They had all freed their
weapons from the corpse as I neared them, and I knew that they had detected me,
whether by magic or by some sense in life that had passed with them into death I
knew not, but a fiery intensity lit their empty skulls, directed at me. They
came for me in a shambling sort of walk, the joints in their legs giving rise to
a horrendous sound, a high-pitched grinding that sent a shiver through my
nerves.

 

I raised my maces in salute as
they neared me, and had time to be surprised as two of the skeletons continued
in a straight line past me, paying me no attention at all, my companion, I
concluded, had made her appearance in the field of battle as well. Then the
three were on me, and thoughts of the others fell aside.

 

They came as one, a long sword,
battleaxe and quarterstaff all cutting through the air simultaneously, but there
was no continuity to their attacks, they simply aimed at the same target.  My
maces began to whir back and forth in front of me in a simple deflecting
pattern, watching as my opponents entered my reach. They struck with a
terrifying strength but no real grace or agility and so I was able to prepare
for their attacks before they reached me, diverting the axe’s overhead swipe and
allowing it to bury itself in the ground. I rolled back and away from a sweep of
the sword that would have sliced a tree in two, breathlessly trying to recover
enough to dodge the long pole plunging at my head. One mace made it in time,
deflecting the angle so it passed by, catching the shoulder instead of my face.
The blow caused an instant ache but also gave me an opening, swinging upward
with my injured arm; the spiked ball of my mace smashed one of the arms holding
the staff. The weapon drooped awkwardly and all three skeletons stopped and
stared at me, then as one they gave voice to a hideous shriek, something heard
no doubt in the pits of whatever afterlife these had been culled from. The
shriek cut off and they came at me again, the air humming with the weapons
cutting through it.

 

I had no warning at all,
neither sound nor sight to prepare me. The light of the sun exploded upon that
field at dusk. A force of pure light rushed past me from behind and I fell to my
knees, blinded by the golden-white radiance. I felt a figure near me and struck
out blindly battering invisibly, I heard a solid crunch as both maces made
contact. A cloud of powder misted against my face and I knew that at least one
of my enemies had fallen.

 

I could sense nothing else
nearby so I waited, kneeling, blind in the light. To one side of me I felt the
ground dance suddenly, echoed moments later by the horrendous sound of dozens of
bones being crushed at once. An outline appeared in my peripheral vision,
solidifying as I turned to look at it. Her diminutive form strode towards me,
the massive hammer still clenched in mail-clad fists. “Larynn,” her voice was
frosty, “I thought you would know better than to leave an enemy behind, even an
injured one”. She moved forward, the light fading as she moved. She approached a
skeleton, the last, I noticed, that was still standing. With incredible ease she
swung the hammer back with both hands and brought it up and through; again the
earth danced with the force of the blow and the sound of bones shattering to
dust rang in my ears. The weight of the hammer made a very thorough job of it,
from skull to feet scarcely a bone was left in one piece. White dust coated the
little healer’s armor and I knew what had befallen the two skeletons that had
passed by me.

 

She turned to me, the divine
light fading from her eyes, weariness seeping in to replace it. “Well,” she
asked as her eyes met mine, “shall we go on?”

 

I turned to look at the door,
until now I hadn’t allowed myself to think about it; one problem at a time. Now
I considered it, a wooden construction set into the base of the hill. Striding
to it I set my ear against it and listened; nothing sounded from the other side.
I spared a glance for the halfling walking up to join me. “Let’s see who’s home,
shall we?”

 


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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

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Karen 1
Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.

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