Game Of Bones – Part Two

SkelliesClash and clatter, shouts and yells, blades on armour, the shrieks of hell. The heady din of battle vibrated around Crick’s ribcage. It coursed through his marrow like blood through veins. Violence was his heartbeat.

Death!

Crick swung his sword at the knees of the sprightly female on the table. She sprang aside, swished her scimitar. Crick met it with his shield and the vicious curve of steel grabbed a bite from the circle. He staggered back from the blow, falling against the crush of his comrades. A perfect crescent flew overhead as easily as if freshly cut from an orange.

The warrior woman hopscotched on disused dinnerware, kicking crockery and cutlery aside. Knives and forks embedded themselves in bone and the household guard pressed inward, a number of them wearing tarnished silverware.

Crick lunged forward with them. Vaulted onto the table. He charged at the woman’s back. She mowed a crop of skulls, slicing one, two, three at a time and skeletons fell like sticks of firewood. Her pony tail whipped about like an angry black mamba. Crick ducked under its tongue and hacked at the woman’s fleshy calves.

She spun. A few precious droplets, with a bouquet of iron, sprayed from the wound. Spotted the dusty tablecloth red red red. She roared and chopped at his midriff. He skipped back, bent at the waist. Steel nicked his lower rib. Behind the woman, ten, twenty, thirty guards leaped onto the table. Crick clacked his teeth. And lunged, striking for the neck. She parried. Shimmering scimitar and ancient sword clanged, ringing down his radius and ulna. He swung his blade back, she swung high. He snapped his shield up to meet the downswing. Two halves of the clipped shield parted company and tumbled away with shattered splintered bones. Crick’s hand landed in an empty soup tureen and he heard it scuttling and scrabbling about in there like a trapped spider.

He toppled, raising his sword to fend off follow-up blows. None came.

The warrioress rolled aside under the raining attacks of the army that had retaken the table’s high ground. She felled more, chopping the legs out from under them, as she dropped off the edge and out of sight. He sensed her moving, sneaking away under the table – right beneath him – like a cat who’d stolen some scraps. Or a hound, sloping off with a bone.

He looked in his hollow sightless way at the splintered remnants of his shield-arm. A grievous, bloodless, painless injury. He bled cold but felt no warmer. He felt only rage, fury, lust for revenge.

“There’s too many!” The warrior woman’s voice was dulled and muffled under the table. She was further along now, perhaps seven or eight place-settings towards the door.

Crick flipped himself over. He reached forward and stabbed with his sword. Then pulled. Tugged the blade from the wood and cloth. Reached then stabbed then pulled. Dragged himself along over cutlery, abandoned crockery, broken glasses and rotted leftovers. Crawling above while she scurried below.

From across the hall, the knight answered: “Fall back! Fall back!”

He carved with great broad strokes, his greatsword breaking whole swathes of skeletons like brittle twigs. Merciless, monstrous, he smashed them all. More spilled in to fill the space around him and he cut them down, piling the sticks high and sending skulls rolling like bowling balls. But with each mighty sweep of that blade, the knight stole a clanking step back. For all his strength and shining armour, he was in retreat.

“Not yet!” came the protest from the heart of the hall.

The Priest pressed his advance through the surging sea of Crick’s comrades. The holy symbol, so deadly to the dead, thrust before him to bask that end of the Banquet Hall in its awful glow. A light as radiant as angels’ smiles and a warmth that Feathergale had never known, not even when fires had crackled in its hearths.

The Lord of the House stood, rising from his throne in defiance of the light. Daring the warmth to impale itself onto his chill like a cavalry charge on a phalanx of spears. If the Lord showed any signs of fear, his chainmail coat cloaked them. There was perhaps the faintest of trembles in the hand of bone with which the Lord stretched out to claw the air. But the crown of barbed steel rested firmly on his royal skull, as rock-steady as the foundations of the House. Like Feathergale it would endure all the elements the world cared to throw at its thorned spires.

The Lord of the House parted his teeth and a sound fell from his mouth like the dying breath of a forest.

The Priest marched onward.

“No, not yet! Now!” the knight insisted. “Right now!”

Crick would have recommended the knight turn and flee and leave his priestly partner to his death. Crick certainly left the priest to the Lord’s pleasure and carried on his crawl, rucking the tablecloth, scattering long-abandoned place-settings and ploughing his jaw through the sweet sludge of rotten fruits and meats.

The woman was still there, below him. As though scurrying down there through the sulphurous underworld, while he crawled after her, up on the surface of the earth with the insects and worms.

He seethed with lungless breaths, tasted her without a tongue and he crawled and crawled to the table’s end and peered down to see her emerge. Alive with fear, she hauled herself from beneath the table and turned her head to glance up –

Just a stab too late.

Crick drove his trusty rusty blade down into her back. It sank into her like the first bite of a gravedigger’s shovel into rain-sodden soil.

She cried tears and raw noise. Blood welled up around Crick’s blade. The rust lapped up the redness, acting as his tastebuds. The scent of iron and fear and pain perfumed the air.

Crick drank it in through his eye sockets and nasal cavities and through every crack between every tooth.

“Lysara!” The knight charged like a steel bull through the thicket of ribs and limbs. Blades bashed at him but the armour soaked up every dent and ding. He swept most of the attackers aside, swinging the enormous blade in pendulous arcs with just one arm.

As soon as he was within reach, he swung the greatsword at Crick.

Crick tugged his sword free from its bed of flesh, pushing it aloft to parry. The knight’s greatsword batted it easily from Crick’s fingerbones. A plate-armour gauntlet smashed into Crick’s skull and knocked him flying from the tabletop.

As he spun and tumbled onto a pile of his comrades, Crick saw that same gauntlet grab hold of the woman and haul her off the flagstones and drag her towards the door.

The priest, thrusting his holy symbol of Melchor this way and that, raced after them. Its light and its terrible warmth washed briefly over Crick and then the door slammed and the trespassers were gone.

Peace fell like loose cobwebs.

Victory.

[To Be Continued…]

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Game Of Bones – Part One

SkelliesFeathergale. Where gusts blew about the stone like rumours.

Crick had patrolled these halls and passages ever since he was a young lad, with shoulders barely broad enough to fill out a mail shirt and arms barely strong enough to swing a sword. But you grew up fast and you learned faster or you came away from the training yard every day with more colourful welts and bruises to add to your collection. Glorious blues and reds and purples, royal as the Feathergale House flag.

Now the one flag left flying was a rag and Crick was a distant relative of that fast learner. There were no more lessons to be learned and he walked the halls with a bowed back and no bruises or chainmail. Only his trusty (rusty) sword and a round target shield on his left arm.

Beyond these essentials of soldiering, he was naked.

Naked. More naked than any man had a right to be. No clothes, no skin, no flesh, no muscle or sinew. Only bone, held together by magic. Magic and memories of a life lived. How his empty skull retained those memories, he had no idea. They should have poured from his eye sockets long ago. And yet that was where he sensed his soul resided. His skull was a house of spirits. Much like this ancient fortress.

Gloomy and hollow and cold.

Cold.

Cold.

The gusts whistled through the cracks in the walls and crept into his bones day by day. But the cold had been there in the moment he’d died and here it was still, a constant companion even after death. His thoughts shivered and his joints creaked.

Creaks echoed in every hallway as other soldiers, other guards tread the paths of their assigned patrols. The place sounded like a rotting wood commanded into a danse macabre by harsh winds. Nightly performances, forever and ever.

And there, in the chamber at the passage’s end, a sound that didn’t belong.

Something moved without creaking. Something alive.

Crick listened. And searched.

Sight was a miraculous and dreadful thing with eyeless sockets. It came, like all the senses, on the breezes.

Winds swept up the tower stairwells, scattering flocks of dust before them, carrying scents of all they had passed. Columns and carvings, decayed furniture and statuary graced the currents with contours and they blew in through his vacant sockets to eddy around in his skull like echoes in a bone cavern. They whispered shapes – phantoms of smell and sound and shadow and dust – in his mind.

This night, they described three trespassers. Three uninvited guests standing in the Banquet Hall. In scrawls of dark and light, motion and stillness, presence and absence, they sketched weapons in the intruders’ hands.

Crick tightened his skinless knuckles around the grip of his own sword. He lurched along the landing, knees and elbows creaking in concert with the floorboards.

His patrol covered the upper galleries and the broken turret known as the Half-Tower. But the guards below had failed and the rules were simple: in the event of trespass, everyone rallied to the Lord of the House.

Other upper-storey guards converged with Crick at the head of the stairs. They formed a line, spiralling all the way down the tower. Faster, faster, fleet of bony foot. When you were dead, cold persisted, but there was no fear of falling.

At the base of the tower, Crick led the charge over the collapsed door and through the Hall Of Veils where the lace tapestries hung like curtains of cobweb, as ragged as the Feathergale flag. He beat the flat of his blade on his shield and cracked wide his jaw to shriek. A hollow, haunting war cry forged of borrowed air, raked from the cavity where his brain used to reside and driven out by a single raging thought. Death! Death to all trespassers!

They burst into the Banquet Hall and the room answered, air returning to his skull with noise and images of a battle already begun.

“Look to the flanks!” cried a man. A loud shout, rich and grained with life. Foreign, offensive, declaring itself enemy with its flagrant possession of a throat.

The speaker had mass and bulk, muscle encased in steel plate. He moved swiftly, unencumbered by the armour and swinging more steel in two hands. Slicing left to right, high and low, right to left, scything through a field of bone. Up on the banquet table, another figure danced. Her scent was sweeter. She was slender, quick as flame with skin of coal, twice as alive as the knight. She severed skulls from spines with a flashing scimitar and kicked at rib cages and hurled lightning knives deep into dark sockets.

A third human walked alone. He smelled of youth and robes infused with incense. He marched through the melee unopposed. Parting a sea of skeletons, he advanced on the Lord, holding a weapon out before him that was no weapon but also the worst weapon of all. And he spoke in whispers, not unlike the gusts that blew constantly through Feathergale’s desolate halls, but rhythmic and powerful in their quiet. The chants were his shield, the symbol his sword and there was no mistaking a priest of Melchor.

Agents of Light had dared to break into the House.

There were but three. They should have brought an army.

Crick clacked his jaw, raised his sword high and leaped into the fray.

He and a hundred comrades rained their war cries on the invaders and pressed their attack.

Death! Death to trespassers!

And after, in time, a chance to enlist in the household guard.

If they were fortunate.

[To Be Continued…]