Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Boneguard: Hope Rising (Part V)

by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012

The Present
         Hope’s face had blanched as Ten’s story unfolded, culminating in a single tear trickling down her cheek.
         “That’s terrible,” she said softly. “Ten, I am so sorry she made you do that – such an evil act.”
         “It was,” Ten replied. “But my point was that Charris herself was not evil.”
         “Oh?” she prompted, brow raised. Seven’s amber eyes dimmed.
         “It has been a debate among us since the beginning,” he admitted. “It might interest you to know that the child that died so that Exile could live had a disease. One that inevitably would have made her life short and death long and excruciating.”
         “It was why she was selected,” Ten stated. Hope maintained her cool gaze at Seven.
         “Are you saying what she did was not evil?”
         “Not at all,” Seven replied. “I have long argued that the death of a child is never justified.”
         “And I have argued that in death, the child allowed for a new life,” Eight interjected. “In a sense, that little girl was as much Exile’s mother as Charris was.”
         Nine shifted but did not speak. But Hope’s eyes found her anyway. After a long moment, Nine grew uncomfortable.
         “It is not my place,” she stated carefully, “to speak against my elders.”
         “It is here,” Hope replied softly. “No reprimand will befall you – speak your mind.”
         The burnt blue of Nine’s eyespark flared. She glared at Seven. “To hear you speak on good and evil, one would believe that no evil can be redeemed. And we both know this is not the case. And you,” Nine leveled her gaze at her brother. “Adding flowery words to an evil act does not justify it – it merely makes it sound more acceptable.”
         “And what do you think?”
         Hope’s question clearly caught Nine off her guard, but she composed herself quickly.
         Her eyes burned as she cast her gaze on Twelve and then Ten in turn. “Unlike certain others who abstain their opinion, I believe that Charris did what was necessary – that the child was diseased did not factor into it.”
         Seven’s amber eyes smoldered. “She did not need to choose one so young!”
         “She needed a young soul or the transference would have been rejected,” Nine returned, calmly though her burnt blue eyes burned all the more brightly.
         “She did not need to terrify her so!” Seven snarled.
         “She needed to be certain the spirit lingered long enough for her to take hold of it, and fear is the only sure way to do that, we have been through this a thousand times! I have studied Charris’ notes-”
         “Enough!” Ten’s deep voice was not loud, per se, but the authoritative tone brooked no dissent. Being the youngest of the three, he had no such authority, but they listened anyhow.
         “You have a story to tell,” Hope said to Nine. “But for now, we are speaking of the Exile. As she is not present to speak for herself, are there any that knew her mind?”
         Four pairs of burning eyes, amber, silver, burnt blue, and gold fixed on the violet eyespark of Boneguard Twelve.
         “I suppose I knew her the best,” Twelve admitted. “That does not mean I know her mind.”
         “What was she to you?” Hope posed gently.
         “We had a unique bond, a connectivity that the others did not.”
         “You were in love.” It was a simple statement that carried great weight. Twelve hesitated.
         “Perhaps. I have read a great deal on the subject, and while our relationship defied the precepts of gender and lacked the visceral need to procreate, I would define it as love.” She paused, seeming to gather herself. “Yes. We were in love.”
         Hope simply lofted a brow. Twelve shifted. “What I have learned on the subject is simply academic, but love is a multi-faceted word. It transcends gender and race and occasionally species though to a lesser extent. I say that because we Boneguard lack gender. Certainly our unique personalities identify as one or the other but we are made of metal, wood, stone, and magic, we are without the anatomical characteristics that define ‘male and female’. As such, we lack the urge and frankly the capability to procreate. Therefore, I am forced to define love as the melding of two spirits, and while the act of love celebrates that, it is not strictly necessary to the state of being in love.”
         Twelve turned to Seven. “What Exile never told you was that she insisted on seeing her birth parents several days after her Awakening. Charris expressed the appropriate concern – but did not forbay her.”

1001 years previous…
         “Elven, I beg you to reconsider,” Charris rested her hand on the plating that comprised Exile’s shoulder. “This will be difficult… for all of you.”
         “Nonsense,” Exile retorted, moving through the crowded plaza, ignoring the stares that she and Charris drew in equal measure. It was market day in the small village and it seemed every farmer, merchant, and craftsman for miles around. Exile drew stares of fear and mistrust, but Charris by virtue of her stunning beauty. “They are my mommy and daddy. They will love me anyway.”
         Charris’ face did not exactly darken, but her face changed subtly. “Humans do not whether change well,” she said softly. “Your parents gave you to me because you were sick and I offered you a chance at a future.”
         Exile was not truly listening. As they passed a patch of trees, four children dashed into the street in front of them.
         “I know them! They are my friends!” Exile exclaimed. “Jocen! Marcoux! Hellow!”
         The children turned at their names, but then Jocen, the youngest, screamed at Exile’s visage and fled. The other three, looking just as terrified, ran after. Exile’s crimson gaze flickered erratically.
         “They are afraid of me,” she murmured, touching her faceplate. She turned to Charris. “Am I a monster?”
         Charris shook her head. “You are unique,” she stated. “Sometimes people forget that one is not the other.”
         Exile hesitated, as if deciding something.
         “No,” she said, more to herself than to Charris. “They will want me.”
         Charris simply followed behind, unconvinced.
         Exile found her parents’ shop without difficulty. It was small, out of the way, and boasted blue shutters. Through the windows, motion indicated the shop was occupied and bustling.
         “I should go in alone,” Exile said. “Mommy and Daddy do not trust magickers.” Charris pursed her lips.
         “I don’t know if that is wise.”
         “It will be fine,” Exile insisted. Charris crossed her arms over her perfect bosom.
         “Fine,” she said. “But I am coming in at the first sign of difficulty.”
         Exile turned and walked toward the shop. The door opened as she reached for the handle. A woman, on the young side of middle age, stood there, staring at the construction before her, decorated with a skull-shaped faceplate, and bone motif, seeming for all the world to be reaching for her.
         She screamed. She recoiled back, slamming the door.
         “Mommy!” Exile exclaimed, bursting through the door after her. Charris cried her name, but it was drowned out by her mother’s screaming.
         Charris darted in after her in time to see Exile’s father, a huge brutal man with small squinty eyes and a pig nose pull a chair leg that served as a club from under the counter and brandish it at the creature in his shop.
         “Stand back monster!” he yelled, in a somewhat higher pitch than could be considered manful.
         “But… Daddy, it is me!” Exile exclaimed in a voice that should have been small and vulnerable, but sounded more menacing coming from the necromantic-themed creature.
         “My daughter is dead!” he shouted. “And how dare you even think to pretend to be her! She was a sweet innocent child while you are a horrific monster from the depths and if you come one step further into my shop, I will send you back from whence you came!”
         It would have been a fairly impressive speech if the acrid stench of urine did not assail Charris’ nostrils and she stepped into the shop. Exile, for her part, wailed in anguish and fled the shop. Her father, startled by the sudden keening from the monster in his shop, flung the club letting out a distinctly girlish squeal. The hunk of wood bounced off of Exile’s metal-bound back and deflected directly into Charris’ nose.
         An audible crack issued from the enchantress’ face. Exile disappeared out the door. Everyone in the room froze.
         Charris touched her nose and rubbed the blood between her fingers. Slowly, the crooked bent straightened and the blood ceased to flow, but even as they did so, Charris’ eyes burned with malevolence and rage.
         “How… DARE you.”
         She whirled on her heel and stalked after Exile.

         Exile knelt at the city square in the middle of a semi-circle of an enraged mob of villagers, her back to the giant willow tree that grew there.
         “Die vile creature!” someone screamed.
         “Destroy the monster!” someone else bellowed. The mob roared its approval as Exile pleaded with them.
         “Please! It is me! You know my parents!” the crimson of her eyespark flickered rapidly as she begged.
         “Destroy the monster! Destroy! Destroy!” the crowd began to chant.
         “No!” Exile cried out, but could not weep. She was not equipped.
         Everything stopped: Everyone froze in place, some of them mid-scream. Exile glanced around to see Charris walking toward her.
         “You made me into a monster!” Exile screamed. Charris set her jaw.
         “I gave you a less breakable form,” she said calmly. “It is not how you look that makes you a monster, but how you act. Now, Eleven,” she paused. “Are you a monster?”
         Exile stared at her for a long moment.

The Present…
         Twelve stopped her narrative. She had settled to her knees before Hope as the young woman sat on the altar. Hope waited a moment but soon realized that Twelve was not going to continue.
         “What happened then?” she asked. Twelve stood.
         “I do not know. Exile never finished telling me that story,” she murmured. She turned and rejoined the others. Ten did not step forward, but he spoke.
         “Around that time, there were reports that the village had burned to the ground. There were no survivors.”
         Hope looked to Seven.
         “And you never knew of this?” she inquired. Seven shook his head.
         “I knew of the tale that Ten told,” he admitted. “But Exile and I never got on.”
         “She hated you,” Nine stated simply. Seven nodded.
         “She hated me.”
         “Why did she hate you?” Hope prodded.
         “We had very different views on faith,” Seven said, but Nine shook her head emphatically.
         “She hated you because of what you meant to Twelve,” she insisted. “And she never forgave you for what you did.”
         Seven leveled his gaze on Nine, but his voice was soft when he spoke. “I did nothing that did not need to be done. And it is a story I am not interested in repeating at this time.”
         “But it needs to be told,” Nine returned. “Hope has a right to know. You said so yourself.”
         Seven opened his mouth, but before he could speak, a low whistle filled the room with sound. The Boneguard all looked in the direction of the Tomb’s entrance, while Hope glanced around.
         “What is it?”
         “Someone has approached the mouth of the Tomb,” Seven replied. “We have visitors.”

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Boneguard: Hope Rising (Part IV)

by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012

The Tomb…
        Hope sat on the altar wrapped in a wall hanging. Her own clothes had long ago rotted away and the Boneguard were not affected by extreme temperature, therefore they had little to off in the way of wardrobe. Ten watched her sit there and think. He could see that though Seven had tried to move as if he were human, he did not have it quite right. Humans puffed and pulsed and twitched. They were never perfectly still, and that bothered Ten. A Boneguard could stand motionless nearly indefinitely, but a human could not manage it at all. They were all flesh and chaos and that was unsettling. And she was looking at him.
        “You don’t trust me, do you?” she asked. Ten stared at her, golden eyes unflickering.
        “Trust does not enter into it,” he replied at the last. “Seven leads, we follow.”
        “Do you think we can win?” she prompted. He searched her face having read somewhere that you could determine a human’s meaning there, but all he saw were the sum of her parts, not the whole.
        “Winning does not enter into it either.”
        “But you must have an opinion.” She was staring now, crystal blue eyes wide and fixed. Of course he had an opinion. He had seen the change over time, and though he was unaware of the cause, he had his suspicions through which he drew certain conclusions from which he formed an opinion, but it was all worthless because he did not know. He considered explaining this to her. Then, with his usual egregiousness…
        “No. We cannot win.”
        She did not speak, but neither did she stop staring. Ten decided it was impolite not to stare back. They carried on in silence.

Elsewhere in the Tomb…
        Seven stood against the entrance to Twelve’s chamber, arms folded. Twelve stood nearby, watching him. Somewhere in the catacombs, Eight and Nine were bickering, and their voices carried clear as if they were in the room.
        “He has to tell her,” Eight was shouting. “She has to know what we are up against!”
        “Do not be foolish brother! If he tells her, she will wish to fight.”
        “Good!” he exploded. “Someone should!”
        “If she fights, she will die, and screaming.” Nine’s voice though soft, seemed to reverberate through the halls. “She will die alone.”
        “We will fight with her,” Eight said flatly. “They will have to cut us down before they can get to her-”
        “And she still dies alone,” Nine interjected. “There is little we can do, we are the last remaining guardians of a long dead world. Now that she has returned, our function has ceased: No more bones to guard.”
        Seven had heard enough. “Will the two of you cease your bickering and be silent!” His voice did not echo so much as tremble the halls.
        “Nine is not incorrect,” Twelve stated softly, her voice quavering.
        “She will not die alone,” Seven said. “Not with me beside her.”
        “What happens if you die first?” Twelve inquired.
        If Boneguard could smile, which they cannot, but if they could, Seven would have. “Then you will have to restore me.”
        Twelve’s violet eyes flickered. “I cannot leave the Tomb, my duties…”
        Seven’s eyes were fixed. “’Our function has ceased: No more bones to guard.’ There is nothing here for us, Twelve. Nothing but a slow, dull existence that equates to oblivion. Out there…” he swept his arm wide. “There the road to oblivion leads first through mayhem and glory, and just before the end, purpose.”
        “Then the oblivion?” Twelve’s voice was laced with irony.
        Seven nodded slowly. “Our lives were slow and studious. We read about life, but never learned to live it ourselves.”
        “We are not alive, Seven,” Twelve admonished him. “We are created from stone and metal and fire and magic.”
        Seven’s eyes flared, threatening to escape the twin holes in his faceplate. “I live for I think and with thought comes reason, and with reason, knowledge, and with knowledge-”
        “-all the universe has to offer.’ Isravaela had that scribed across the doorway to her workshop in the language of the sages.” Twelve finished. Seven grasped her by both shoulders.
        “We live because we can reason, and with reason comes the ability to choose.”
        He turned and left her chamber.

Further in the Tomb…
        Eight was waiting for him in the corridor, with Nine trailing a little behind.
        “What will you tell her?” Eight asked without preamble as Seven moved past him. Nine gave Eight a shove.
        “What my brother means to say is that we apologize for our misconduct, but we share grave and… differing concerns about what information would share-”
        Seven whirled on her. “I am not interested in your concerns Boneguard Nine. After everything that girl has been through, she deserves the whole truth.” Seven moved to leave, but Nine restrained him with her hand touching his arm. The air visibility rippled around her as power began to gather. Seven’s eyes blazed, but he stopped of his own will.
        “Which truth will you tell?” Nine asked. “As near as I can tell, the plan worked. Boneguard One through Six did succeed in what they set out to do: They brought them back.” Power continued to gather as she spoke, forming a translucent wall of thickening power around her. “And they saved the world-”
        Seven moved fast, faster than sight, faster than thought, and Nine did not know her power was broken until she slammed into the wall and fell to the floor, the shards of her shattered power evaporating into nothing. “Not like this. The skies weep and the earth bleeds. Everything between earth and sky is rotten and everything below stirs restlessly like a great churning beast. This is not a saved world.”
        “Your obsession with resurrecting this girl has blinded you,” Nine said weakly, glaring up at him.
        His amber eyes stared back, unmoved. “Stay behind. Your whole existence is behind stone walls, and nothing can touch you. Gods forbid you should leave this place of the dead: May you remain until you fall to moldering pieces, safely away from anything that can harm you.”
        Her burnt blue eyes flashed. “Are you calling me a coward?”
        “Yes,” he replied flatly. “What else could you be?” He turned and stalked away.

Closer out of the Tomb…
        Seven knelt before Hope.
        “It will be difficult to hear,” he said, his voice low.
        She touched his forehead. It was a simple, oddly intimate gesture. “It will be harder to tell,” she predicted. He waited. She settled into a sitting position on the altar to listen. The five other denizens of the Tomb were near at hand, arrayed about the room, some seated, some standing, all perfectly still. Before Hope was a bowl of magically nourishing berries, provided by Twelve through equally magical means. It restored strength, quenched hunger and thirst and had a pleasant, though unidentifiable flavor. She had eaten almost half the blow.
        Seven began, as one does, at the beginning…

1007 years previous…
        Her palsied hand quaked as she affixed his designation to his forehead, but she moved nimbly through the motions of the spell that would make it permanent. He felt warmth for the first and only time in his life as the designation ceased to be separate and became a part of him: He was Boneguard Seven. And with that simple realization, he became… aware.
        She leaned in, watching as it happened. His eyes, which had been muted white in hue flared to brilliance in the color of the sky at sunset. She, for her part, snorted.
        “Amber,” she mumbled, and made a note on her parchment. Then, she asked. “Who are you?”
        “Boneguard Seven, Mother,” he replied promptly. The wrinkles in her face deepened as she scowled..
        “Don’t call me that. Who am I?”
        “You are Isravaela, the Scholar Queen, and the creator of my brethren and I, the Boneguard of the Tome of Lost Heroes-”
        “Good, good.” She muttered as she stooped to make another note.
        “-but more importantly, you are my mother.”
        She stopped. “I told you not to call me that.”
        Boneguard Seven regarded her quizzically. “Is this not true?”
        “Not remotely,” she returned. “What makes you think that it is?”
        His cranial unit tilted to the left almost imperceptibly as he responded. “My predecessors were created using small portions of life-force provided by the six great heroes of the era, correct?”
        “Yes,” Isravaela waved a crooked hand dismissively. “You know this to be true.”
        “I was merely verifying,” Boneguard Seven explained. “I was not.”
        “I was not creating utilizing existing life-force. I was simply… created.”
        She nodded. “It is true. So?”
        “So you gave me life, awareness, and independent thought. Therefore-”
        She held up her hand again. “Don’t say it.”
        “Would you prefer ‘Mommy?’ Given that I am only a few minutes old it would be appropriate.” She was already shaking her head, but suppressing a smile.
        “Call me Vaela,” she conceded. “Now. What is your primary function?”
        “I-” he stopped. “Please forgive me, Vaela, but there seems to be a problem… I was not given a primary function. Only a set of general parameters.”
        She laughed, a sound that made her seem younger somehow. “Good. It’s called free will, Boneguard Seven. The parameters will act as your conscience, but your decisions are yours and yours alone to make. No Boneguard yet living has that option, and no Boneguard Charris creates will have it either. You, Boneguard Seven, are unique. And that makes you special.”
        “Why would Charris deny her creations such a gift?” Boneguard Seven inquired.
        “Charris lacks… imagination. And I do not intend to show her how.” Isravaela replied without looking up from her notes.
        “And why will you deny your future creations this gift?”
        She stopped writing and put down her pen but did not look up.
        “Recite your parameters.”
        And he did.

The Present…
        “She died two days later,” Seven said softly. “A cancer devoured her lungs.”
        “I remember,” Hope murmured. “It was only six years hence… they put white lilies on her sarcophagus.”
        “In point of fact,” Twelve and gently, “it was one thousand and seven years ago. And the white lilies bloomed for years afterward. We never reckoned why.”
        Ten knew, but did not speak. Boneguard Four had asked him to tend them and replace them when they withered. He had done so for several years until Boneguard Six had caught him one day, and ordered him to stop. Four, having been created before Six, had more authority, but she said nothing when the flowers eventually died. But Four had told him never to speak of it, and the word of the Elders was law.
        “Tell me of Boneguard Eleven,” Hope said. Ten knew it had to be a general request, but she was looking at him as if she knew he had a story to tell.
        “She is Exile,” Twelve said, her voice soft and sad. “She tried to keep you from us.”
        Ten stepped forward and Twelve fell silent. Unlike the Elders, they were not ranked by the time of their creation, but Ten’s loquacious nature demanded their attention.
        “I will tell,” he said at length, “of Exile’s Awakening.”
        And he began.

1001 years previous…
        He made his way through the dark, labyrinthine halls of Charris’ dungeon, the eyes of her slaves upon him. But they shied away from the bars at his approach, even though touching him would not have been difficult as his bulk filled most of the hallway. Normally they would have eagerly tried to take a piece of what hapless soul who wandered down here, But he was neither hapless or wandering, and they knew… he was her creation.
        Even if Boneguard Ten did not know the way, all he had to do was follow the screaming. The door was locked but opened to his touch, and there she stood.
        Many expressed how beautiful she was, but Ten knew it was a glamer. She was older than anyone could guess, and her stopped and twisted body reflected that. But none of that could be seen now: She was as young and beautiful as ever, even standing over the girl-child who was screaming piteously for her mother.
        “At last,” Charris glared at him over her shoulder. “Kill the child so the transference can begin.”
        Boneguard Ten moved forward. The girl was strapped to a table alongside the metal and wood figure that would be Exile. Her screaming increased as he loomed over her.
        “Do not be afraid,” he said gently. So gently that her cries lessened, and she did not flinch as he laid his hand on her head. “It is over.”
        With a simple twist, he broke her neck. The crying stopped.
        Charris began to chant and her left had shot out, snake-like, and grasped at air. She adjusted her grip and dragged, straining as if pulling a writhing beast against its will, until her clenched fist hovered over her inert creation. With a sudden crescendo, her voice rising to a shriek, she completed the ritual, and Exile’s red eyes blazed to life, her metallic jaw flying open to finish the scream the girl-child had never uttered.
        The sound raked Ten’s soul, but Charris appeared unmoved. The scream died to a whimper as Exile glanced around, disoriented. Finally, she focused on Charris.
        “A-are you… my mommy?” she asked in a voice full of terror and hope.
        “Yes, my dear,” Charris purred. “I am your mommy.”
        For the first and only time in what would be a very long life, Ten shuddered.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Boneguard: Homecoming (Part III)

by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012

Once again, further inside the Tomb…
        Seven stood over the altar, looking over the remains. All that was left of her was dry, dusty bones and his memories. In another thousand years, her bones would crumble to dust, but she would still live in his mind, alive and vibrant. If this did not work….
        But it had to work. So much had been sacrificed that it had to work. Because if it did not….
        The memories flooded back to him, unbidden.

Twenty years previous…
        The woman danced and dodged as the massive undead dragon rained down blow after blow upon her. Seven struggled against the vice-like tentacles that held him fast, helpless to intervene. The knight pushed himself to his feet, the heavy plated armor still sizzling where the snake-like creature spat its acidic venom. Dazed, the knight made for Seven, intent on cutting him free.
        “No!” Seven cried, trying to point. “Help her!”
        The knight turned just in time to see the dance end. The huge claw pinning her to the rain-soaked ground, the dragon reared its huge horned head for another geyser of acid, this time directly onto the helpless woman.
        The knight roared his fury at the imminent end of his long-time travelling companion, raised his hammer high in the air and invoked the name of the Dawnmaker. Holy fire rained from the raging gray sky, wreathing him in white hot flames as he charged his foe. The crackling nimbus of righteousness burst from him as he neared the monstrous creature, ripping muted black scales and desiccated flesh from its dry bones, but it was too little, too late.
        The undead creature simply turned its head and unleashed the torrent of caustic bile at the knight instead, even as Seven wrenched his arms free. Seven activated the ring on his finger even as the knight screamed his last oath, expending the very last of the ring’s magic… and instantly switched places with the woman.
        “No!” screamed the woman as the dragon made to snap off Seven’s head, still thinking it was she.
        Seven had barely a second to act, but he did not hesitate. He thrust the blade of his sword deep into the monster’s maw, piercing the spinal column, and with a swift and brutal twist, separated the skull from the spine. The huge body collapsed, though the head clamped down on his arm, eyes blazing. Seven released the blade and reached up into the cranial cavity, digging his metal fingers into the withered husk of the dragon’s brain and shredded until the light faded from the creature’s eyes.
        Seven prized the monster’s jaws apart and removed his arm. Pushing the large skull away, he stood and looked around. The knight was dead, little more than a puddle of noxious goo, and the woman lay where Seven had stood, looking feebly at him.
        Even form where he now stood, Seven could see the horrible wound un her stomach where the dragon had mercilessly pushed its dewclaw into the soft flesh of her belly. She would not survive.
        “Is it dead?” she asked. Seven didn’t press the point. It had been dead from the beginning, it was dead now, and it would be dead later when its body reformed and it resumed its reign of terror and acid. But telling her so seemed… cruel.
        “Yes,” he said, truthfully. “It is dead.”
        She nodded, coughed, and sighed. “Tell me why,” she breathed. “Why we did it.”
        “I will show you,” he murmured. He yanked his sword from the creature’s mouth and moved to its exposed belly. He drove the blade in and slit it wide open, its glittering contents spilling onto the ground at his feet. Diamonds. He turned to see tears in her eyes.
        “Treasure?” she gasped. “You said we were saving the world!”
        His orange eyes flickered and he looked down at the diamonds at his feet. “But we are,” he said, “they will restore the one thing that can save this world…” but he trailed off. Her eyes stared at him blankly, accusingly. She would never know.

The Present
        Because if it didn’t work, they died in vain.
        “It’s almost all over,” he murmured, touching the forehead of the grinning skull. “Almost.”
        The soft footfall behind him heralded the arrival of the others. He withdrew his hand and stepped back. Twelve entered, followed closely by Ten, and then Eight and Nine behind him.
        “Ten, if you would place the three whole diamonds into each eye and her mouth,” Twelve instructed. “Then pour the diamond dust around the altar in a-”
        A quiet noise followed by a rush of air preceded the bowl of irreplaceable dust in Ten’s hands exploding in a spectacular cloud. Then a gust of wind powered by magic blew the majority of it up and out of the cracked stained glass window above. Five pairs of eyes, each burning with the color of their souls, turned to Eleven, standing in the entrance, still holding her bow. The arrow she had fired still quivered embedded in the sarcophagus nearest Ten’s elbow. No one moved.
        Seven unleashed a violent roar, ripping his sword from his scabbard and charging Eleven. Ten moved to intervene and Twelve cried out wordlessly. Seven pushed Ten aside, swinging his blade in a mighty arc. Eleven simply stood, bow at her side. She made no move to defend or attack. Seven’s sword halted a hair’s breadth from her faceplate.
        “Draw your bow,” he snarled. “Fight back!”
        “I will cease to function with my bow in my hand,” she returned coolly. “But I will not fight you.”
        “Fight me!” Seven screamed in her face. Her red eyes flickered, but she remained motionless.
        “Strike me down, if it is your will to do so,” she murmured, and then her tone turned dry. “See if your god will forgive you then.”
        Seven’s eyes flamed, but he did not strike. “Do you k now what it cost me to find those? The lives of the last two living beings in the world. And because of you, they died for nothing.”
        “This was your folly, Seven, not mine.” Eleven sneered. For a moment, it appeared as though Seven would strike.
        “Decommission her,” Twelve said, suddenly. All eyes but Seven’s flitted to her, Eleven’s dimming with hurt at the betrayal. “You are one of the Elders, Seven it is your power.”
        “It is not,” Seven spoke slowly. “When Charris created the lot of you, she wanted you as reinforcement. The command to decommission a Boneguard can only come from an Elder with regard to another Elder, and only functions within these walls.”
        “However,” he continued, finally lowering his sword, “I have another option.” His voice raised in volume and in power, infused with the magic of the Elders.
        “Boneguard Eleven,” she said, “you have shamed the sacred trust placed in we who cannot age. You have betrayed your vows and as such, I hereby banish you forever from the Tomb of Lost Heroes. I strip you of your title and rank and name you Exile.” As he spoke, a change came over Eleven. It was impossible to describe what physically transpired, but suddenly she looked… bereft. The 11 on her forehead written in the language of the sages was gone, and one every available space on her body was written the word Exile in every known tongue. Then those faded, leaving her with the rune of the same, permanently etched in her forehead.
        “Gather your things,” Seven said harshly. “And begone from this place.”
        “You cannot force me to-” Exile stated, but Seven cut her off with a sharp gesture.
        “I can,” he said. “I just have not. I will allow you the dignity of leaving under your own power. Once you leave this place, you will forget where it is. You will be unable to see it, or hear anything within it. And Exile,” he stepped close, towering over her. “If I see you in the world… there will be no reprieve.”
        She turned away from the baleful glow of his amber stare and departed.
        Seven spun around.
        “Seven, I am so-” Twelve began, but Seven cut her off.
        “Speak the prayer.”
        Twelve and the others stared at him. “Impossible,” she protested. “Without the dust to catalyze the restoration-”
        We still have the three whole diamonds, correct?” Seven glanced at Ten. The big Boneguard held open his hand to reveal the three sparkling gems. “The diamond dust isn’t a catalyst,” Seven said, taking them from Ten and moving to the altar. “Not for Naenia. For Zoratzu or any of the others maybe, but for Naenia, it is a tribute. A commitment to devotion, and I travelled for twenty years over two continents, and one thrice-damned large ocean to procure those trinkets at the cost of the last living creatures in this world. If that is not commitment to devotion, I know not what is.”
        He placed a diamond in each of the eye sockets and one in the mouth. “So Naenia can find her.” He stepped back. “Speak the prayer.”
        Twelve moved to stand alongside the altar. She raised her hands to the level of her shoulders, palms upward, her faceplate to the heavens, the burning violet of her eyes mere flickers. Seven and Ten bowed their heads, but Eight watched with reverence, Nine with calm interest.
        When Twelve spoke, her words were calm and strong. “Zoratzu called Dawnmaker, we humbly ask thy blessing to retrieve this soul, removed from this realm prematurely by the hands of good intent.”
        “Naenia, daughter of Dawn and Dusk, have mercy on we who tread alone and restore this devoted daughter of thy dawnlit Father’s teachings.”
        Silence. A moment passed. Then another. Twelve turned to look at Seven. Then she turned away and moved to the entry. She paused only a moment, but then passed through. Ten and Nine followed, with Eight trailing reluctantly behind. And then Seven was alone.
        He moved forward so that he stood beside her. “Zoratzu,” he murmured. “Even after I broke my vows, I have served you. Since that day, one thousand years ago, I have upheld your ideals, prayed to you though you did not answer, and sought counsel in your teachings.”
        “I broke my vows one time so that this girl, your true servant, could be restored this day and bring an end to this madness. And I never truly believed that you had turned your back on me, on us, on this world.”
        “Until now.”
        Seven knelt, resting his hand against the stone altar, the amber flame of his eyes extinguished.
        “It is all over,” he whispered.
        “It is almost all over,” said a woman’s voice. “Almost.”
        Seven looked up, his eyes flaring to life. On the altar was a girl, barely twenty, naked as the day she was born, whole and breathing. And she was smiling at him.
        “It is you!” he exclaimed, and then spoke her name for the first time in one thousand years.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Boneguard: Homecoming (Part II)

by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012

Within the Tomb
         The cavern was specifically designed such that sound carried very well. Furthermore, with the appropriate magical persuasion, the phrase spoken at the mouth of the cavern could be heard in every corner, corridor and room in the Tomb. Eight came barreling down the corridor to the chamber that Boneguard Nine had claimed as her own. He pounded frantically on the heavy wooden door.
         “Did you hear?” he called before the door opened. The door creaked and opened a sliver, and one of Nine’s eyes, a glowing orb of burnt blue, peered out at him.
         “Yes, my brother,” she murmured, “I am fairly certain everybody heard you.”
         Every one of the Boneguard considered the others as brethren, similar to cousins, but Eight and Nine were created at the same time, both had a slight and slender build, and they were both given complimentary personalities. The others referred to them as “the twins” and they had adopted the idea readily.
         Eight threw up his hands. “No! Seven has returned! Do you think he found it?”
         Nine stared at him. “Either he did or he did not.” The silver ember of Eight’s eyes flickered. After a thousand years, his sister could still surprise him.
         “Do you not care?” he asked.
         “If he found it, he will either use it and they will kill her, or he will not use it because they will kill her,” she reasoned. “If he did not find it, nothing changes. The only other option is that he died in the attempt and if he has returned as you claim, this is clearly not the case.” Eight stared at his sister.
         “There is no way for them to know about her,” he said slowly, softly.
         “Charris knew,” Nine retorted. “She saw it all. That is why we are even here.” But Eight was already shaking his head.
         “You and I both know that precognitive magic is sketchy at best: Not only do you not see the journey, but-”
         “-but you also see every possible destination, yes I know,” she finished his sentence. “But Charris claimed there was only one outcome with her…” she gestured vaguely in the direction of the Tomb’s one remaining deceased occupant. “And it resulted in the end of the world.”
         Eight’s silver eye flared. “I would argue-” but he stopped. Boneguard Ten had lumbered around the corner. He regarded them with the golden embers of his eyes, his huge frame filling the corridor. Finally, he spoke in his deep voice with his usual loquaciousness.
         “Come,” he rumbled, turned, and disappeared around the corner again. Eight looked at Nine, who looked back. They followed behind him, bickering quietly.

Deeper within the Tomb…
         Boneguard Twelve waved her hand and the silken coverings  folded in on themselves letting the dull slate blue light through the stained glass above. She sang a wordless tune as she ran a clean but ragged cloth over one of the six sarcophagi arrayed about the room. Once upon a time, the song had lyrics, praising the Dawnmaker for another beautiful day. But it had been so long since Twelve had seen the sun, she had forgotten the words. This had distressed her at first, but that soon passed. She reasoned it was the spirit of praise that mattered, not the method.
         A footfall in the doorway indicated she was not alone. She did not look up from her work nor did she stop singing. She waited for him to speak. She did not have to wait long. But instead of words, he sang with her, his rich baritone blending wordlessly with her sweet alto. When they reached the end of the song, their voices resonated in the lofty chamber and slowly faded like the last vestiges of a spirit clinging to life. She turned to look at him.
         “It has been so long since I have seen the sun,” he said softly, “I fear I have forgotten the words.” She nodded, still not speaking. He stepped forward and she could see the others hanging back. All but her. All but Eleven.
         “It is the song that matters,” he continued, “though Zoratzu has long ignored my prayers, the Dawnmaker cannot but hear my song. It was He that created singing.”
         “And in your journey did you discover why the Dawnmaker ignores your prayers?” she asked, equally softly. He hesitated.
         “I k now why He denies me,” he murmured. “That was not the purpose of my quest.”
         She was shaking her head even as he removed the pouch from his belt and extricated the scroll from it. “No,” she said as he held it up.
         “You do not even know what it is,” Seven said, his voice amused. She backed away, still shaking her head. He marveled at the abject human-ness of it. He had never taught her that: Perhaps some things were universal.
         “No more. No deals with Korthin, pacts with Lunora, especially after Five brought back Sir Wane as that… that thing.” She stopped, putting herself between Seven and the last sarcophagus, seventh in the room, plain, unadorned and, unlike the other six, unopened. “I will allow no more affronts to Zoratzu’s will.”
         “This is none of those things,” he said soothingly, unrolled the brittle parchment and showed it to her.
         She stared at him, then took the parchment from him. When she looked up at him again, her violet eyes twinkled slightly. “This is not dark magic.”
         He shook his head. “It is a prayer to Zoratzu, asking for his blessing.”
         “And then it asks Naenia, goddess of rebirth, to show her mercy,” Twelve finished. “It does not even ask Korthin to release his charge – Seven, won’t this offend the god of the dead?”
         “Perhaps,” Seven replied. “But with Zoratzu’s blessing, Korthin has no choice and cannot retaliate. And since it is Naenia drawing her spirit out of the hereafter and not Korthin-”
         “She will be restored exactly as she was in life.” The magnitude of this was slowly sinking in. “But a catalyst is needed. Something so rare that Naenia can easily locate the spirit in question and open a conduit between the realm of the living and the Hereafter. And if I recall, Naenia favors-”
         Seven upended the pouch on the nearest of the sarcophagi, it’s glittering contents passing into the light like rain on a sunny day.
         “-diamonds.” She finished.
         “Naenia’s perfect and final creation,” Seven said softly. The prayer was simple enough to find, it was precisely where she left it,” he gestured toward the sarcophagus behind Twelve. “It was these that took me decades to find. But with no small sacrifice.” His voice was world-weary and sad, but Twelve paid it little attention. They had all of them given up everything for very little in return. All in the name of saving a world they could never live in.
         “Fine,” Twelve said finally. “If you wish to attempt this insane idea, I will not stop you. But if it does not work-”
         “It will not work should I attempt it,” Seven stated. Twelve stopped, his full intention washing over her. “The Dawnmaker no longer answers my prayers.”
         There was a moment of utter silence, even the rain seemed to await her response. She considered the scroll, then Seven, then the sarcophagus behind her.
         “I will need an hour to prepare,” she stated softly.
         Eight let out a resounding whoop, though Ten and Nine simply watched stoically. Seven swept the diamonds into the pouch and extended it to Twelve, but she shook her head. “Give those to Ten and inform him to grind all but the three largest into fine dust.”
         Ten came forward at the mention of his name and took the pouch, nodding at her instruction and moving away. The twins stepped in the room in the meantime and Twelve addressed them directly.
         “Eight, tend to Seven’s battle damage immediately. Nine,” she turned to the other twin. “Remove the remains from the sarcophagus and place them on the altar.” She turned from them and looked to the tunnel that lead to the cavern mouth. “I will be in my chambers presently. There is something I must tend to.”

Elsewhere in the Tomb…
         Twelve’s chambers were only slightly less sparse than Ten’s. The Boneguards needs were very simple, so simple in fact that chambers were really a formality. It was a place to keep their things. Over the last thousand years, many of the Boneguard had developed wide and varied tastes.
         Boneguard One collected poetry and made weapons in his chamber, though the forge had lain cold for fifty years. A large quantity of weaponry still lined his walls.
         Boneguard Two had a strange affinity for animals, and maintained a makeshift triage for injured creatures in her chambers – as well as a laboratory for investigating the bodies of the ones she could not save.
         Boneguard Three had one of the strangest collections of the Boneguard: He tried to collect the weapons used against him that did not kill him. As his method of attack tended to involve breaking the weapons of his foes, his collection was a wide assortment of destroyed weaponry.
         Boneguard Four had a collection of holy symbols, the kind you would wear on a belt, as a broach or attach to a weapon, she had created out of silver for each of the gods of light. Of course there being only three of these, she had numerous shapes and styles for each.
         Boneguard Five did not collect anything, but she wrote prolifically. Journal after journal lined her chamber walls on the shelves that Ten himself built. When she departed, she left it all behind.
         Boneguard Six researched and collected unusual spells, which he filled his grimoires with, though he swore he never cast them on himself. He took most of his favorites with him when he left, but there was nearly a thousand years of material, untouched in his chamber.
         Ten knew all of this because it had fallen to him to care for and maintain all of these things both before and after the elder Boneguard left. He never learned what Seven collected as Seven had never once requested that Ten serve him as the others had. At first, Ten had been a little hurt by this, but as years passed, he came to realize that Seven treated him (and the younger Boneguard in general) differently. Perhaps because the training of the youngest five Boneguard had fallen to him, perhaps it was that he had gotten to know them over the years, perhaps it was simply Seven’s nature, perhaps all three or none of these, but with one exception, Seven had earned the trust and gratitude of almost all the younger Boneguard.
         Eleven could not stand Seven. Ten did not fully understand why, but he had his suspicions. Eleven was practical and self-reliant, believing only in what she could touch, feel, and do. Seven  believed in a power greater than himself, even when that power turned away from him for the evil he had committed. Furthermore, Seven held a special power over Twelve because he had been her spiritual mentor for five centuries, and as strongly as Eleven and Twelve felt for each other, that was a part of Twelve that Eleven would never touch.
         Even as Ten ground the diamonds into powder (using a special tool belonging to Twelve that was made from the same metal that comprised Seven’s armor). Eleven and Twelve entered, lost in argument.
         “You should not do it,” Eleven was saying. “It is by design that Seven is incapable of performing the ritual himself, Charris sad-”
         “It is a prayer to Zoratzu, not a ritual,” Twelve interjected, moving to a makeshift coatrack and removing her ceremonial robes from it. “And Charris is not to be trusted. Especially after Six brought her back as that… creature.”
         Eleven gasped her by the shoulders. “Listen to me… When Charris saw that Seven had interred her body with the rest, she came to me and told me the truth as she had Seen it. The girl will bring an end to this world.”
         Twelve fixed her violet eyes on Eleven. “Did it cross your mind as to why Charris did not simply dispose of the girls’ remains herself before she left here?”
         Eleven released her and looked away. Twelve began to don the roes. “The girl was a protected daughter of Zoratzu, her spirit resides in his sunlight empire, and that which the Dawnmaker lights cannot be touched by the likes of Charris after she was raised. Because Lunora and Zoratzu may never consort again.”
         “Night chases Day chases Night,” Ten murmured. Eleven looked at him, perhaps only now realizing his presence, though he doubted it.
         “Lunora will never be caught in the Light,” Twelve finished the ancient verse and pointedly turned away from Eleven. Ten handed her the pestel of diamond dust, which she accepted and they both turned to leave. Eleven caught Twelve’s arm.
         “You are always telling me to believe in something,” she said softly. “I believe that this is wrong.”
         Twelve extricated her arm. “And as you have often said to me when I speak of belief: You are entitled to your opinion.”
         Twelve exited without another word, Ten trailing close behind.