by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012
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.
“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.