Monday, September 3, 2012

The Boneguard: At the Gates (Part VI)

by Adam Gottfried
© August 2012

[Please forgive the re-posting of this entry: There was some critical editing that needed to take place. It has been dealt with and the entry has been updated appropriately.]

The Tomb’s Entrance
        The five Boneguard stood at the entrance to the tomb in a crescent around their barely clothed human charge. They all six of them saw the sea of undead faces that stood on the field before them, even if the undead could not see them. The army was made up of all kinds, flaming skeletons, shamblers, flesh-eaters, blood-drinkers, and others even less pleasant to name. At their head, two or three dozen feet away from the actual entrance, stood their short, stocky commander. He too bore the unmistakable signs of undeath, but he was wrapped in a nearly visible cloak of malevolence, which set him well apart from the others.
        What was more disturbing was the fact that each of the undead, even those who traditionally lacked a will of their own, had a wicked intelligence that burned in sockets, glinted in milky eyes, and smoldered in solid black irises. The commander was pacing before a large divot in the mound that housed the Tomb, not really near the entrance, and looking quite morose.
        “He thinks that is the entrance but cannot figure out how to open it,” Seven said without really needing to. Most of them had already worked that out for themselves.
        “They can’t see or hear us?” Hope asked softly, but Seven shook his head.
        “The Tomb is protected. Whoever they are, they clearly do not understand the protections placed on this place.”
        “My question is, how is they have come to even be here?” Nine queried. “Not once have we had outsiders visit us here, and now suddenly that we have resurrected Hope, we have an army at the gates.”
        “Seven was followed,” said Ten in his own particular idiom. Seven nodded.
        “The lands to the north were overtaken by Warrick Wane,” Seven stated. “Or rather what Warrick Wane became. I spent a considerable amount of time searching through his lands, looking for the Fort of All Saints. It was my duty to destroy Sir Wane’s creations wherever I found them. I must have gained some notice.”
        Twelve gave Seven a quizzical look.
        “Why were you looking for the Fort of All Saints?” she asked.
        “Because I asked him to,” Hope replied softly. “Before all of this.”

1000 years previous…
        “Seven,” Hope said softly. “It’s time.”
        The tall Boneguard turned to face her. She was small compared to him, barely coming up to his chest, and less than half as wide at the shoulder. He glanced back at his charges who were still engrossed in the procession moving toward the Tomb that would be their home for untold centuries to come. Then, he looked back at her.
        “I am uncertain as to the wisdom of this course of action, my lady,” he murmured, moving forward. She smiled gently. Seven did not understand beauty as humans did, but if he had to guess, he would say that she was very much so. She had a round face with wide blue eyes framed with soft brown hair. Her form was slender and proportionate. Her left eye was very slightly higher than her left, but otherwise her features were more or less symmetrical. She did not have the unearthly grace or beauty possessed by Charris, but Seven guessed that she was just as beautiful in her own way.
        “It is the only way,” she replied. “I fear Charris made a grave miscalculation in the figuring of her machinations. That or…”
        Seven raised a hand. “It is not ours to question,” he said quietly. “We Boneguard were created to obey.” This was not strictly a lie – the Boneguard WERE created to obey. That Seven was given the option to disobey was not relevant.
        “In that case, she made a mistake. A rather large one at that.”
        “If it is so large, why would not Lady Isravaela have seen it?” Seven replied. “I do not mean to criticize, but Lady Isravaela is somewhat more intelligent that Lady Charris…”
        “Or me,” Hope nodded, finishing his thought. “But both Charris and Isravaela are ignorant when it comes to the magic granted by the gods. That is my realm, and I am telling you, they do not know what they have done.”
        Seven shook his head. “I have some powers granted to me by the grace of Zoratzu, but nothing as powerful as what they could bring to bear.”
        “I know my friend,” Hope smiled again. “But you were created to be a warrior. A protector. Not a divine conduit.”
        “You are correct,” he replied. “That is Twelve’s function. If I recall correctly, Lady Charris used ten fingerbones from several different saints in her creation: A divine conduit if there ever was one.”
        “Yes,” Hope agreed again. “Twelve’s construction brings her closer to the will of the gods, but until her understanding matches her raw ability, she will not fully comprehend what it is to be the servant of Zoratzu.”
        “By that logic, neither will I,” Seven’s voice was almost amused. Hope smiled sadly.
        “It is true,” she murmured. “Because you were created to believe in the life-giving power of Zoratzu. And for that, you will never truly be His servant…”
        Seven’s faceplate was implacable as always, but his amber eyes flickered slightly. Not in anger, not at all, but in pain. Whatever emotions he had, she had just now damaged them. But Hope did not see that. She could not, she did not know the whole truth.
        “The fact remains,” she continued. “That you cannot entreat Zoratzu or Naenia to restore life to a person whose time has come. We only get one life to live and when that life ends as all lives should, we cannot return to this mortal realm.”
        “It is different if you are cut down by magic or mace?” he asked, already knowing her answer.
        “It is. It is a small miracle that Svalbaird or Dexterost did not die by the blade, but all the same, they did not. And as such, they cannot be resurrected in Zoratzu’s light.”
        “It seems cruel, considering the only thing they wish to return to do is save existence,” Seven said softly and felt a slight tug on his conscience. He believed in Zoratzu’s teachings, he believed with all his metaphorical heart. And his statement went counter to those beliefs. But then, so too was what Hope was asking of him. He wanted to ask her, to beg her to find another way, but he knew there was none. They had already explored all the alternatives.
        She smiled and stopped, just out of view from both procession and the five youngest Boneguard. “I have placed the spell in a scroll case bearing my seal, and hidden it in my hometown, just a short way south of the Fort of All Saints,” she informed him. “When the time comes, travel there and find it. Then follow the instructions I have included in the case. It must be Twelve that reads the ritual, or Zoratzu may not grant his blessing.”
        Seven nodded. “I understand. Are you ready, my lady?” He drew his longsword.
        “I think,” she said with a bemused smile. “As you are my murderer, that you may call me Hope.”

The Present…
        “Boneguard!” the commander called. “Boneguard, I know you are within the Tomb! Send out a representative to speak for you!”
        The younger Boneguard all glanced at each other and then at Seven. Seven, not at all surprised, started to move forward, but Hope’s hand on his chest-plate stopped him.
        “I should go,” she murmured. “I am the most recent living resident of the Tomb, after all.”
        “No!” Eight called, at the same time his sibling cried out: “Yes, let her go!” Meanwhile Ten crossed his arms over his chest-plate with his usual unflappability and Twelve shook her head, saying nothing.
        Seven raised a hand and the Boneguard fell silent.
        “Once again I find myself reminding you of the wisdom of a particular course of action, Hope,” he murmured. She smiled, the memory, much fresher in her mind than in his, still resonating.
        “Your concern is noted and appreciated, old friend,” she replied. “But I must do this. They must know I am here and that I will stop them.”
        “They will kill you.”
        “Not without direct orders from their masters,” she waved him off. “I am not giving you a choice, Seven. I have made up my mind, and you will obey me.”
        The four younger Boneguard bowed their heads but Seven’s amber eyes flared. “I will not let you go alone.”
        She reached up and touched his face, smiling sadly. “I am the last living thing in this world. I am now and will ever be alone. Stay here, Seven. I will not be harmed.”
        It was a direct order. The kind of order that all Boneguard must follow, especially from one of the Seven Lost Heroes.  All Boneguard save for one.
        She stepped out of the mouth of the Tomb, still wrapped in her tapestry, and moved lightly out of the Tombs glamers and wards. The horde of undead creatures stirred at the sight of her and parted in her path. They started to close in her wake, but Boneguard Seven stepped out after her, causing them to hesitate. Sensing something amiss, she turned. She raised a brow as he moved up next to her.
        “I have guarded your bones for a thousand years. I have traveled the width and breadth of this world to bring you back. And I have defied my mandate and denied my faith to keep you safe. I will not stop now, no matter what orders you may give me.”
        She only smiled at this, and continued to move forward, the large metal-plated, decorated in a familiar skeletal motif, at her side. The commander, now aware of her presence (and a little chagrinned that he had not, in fact, chosen the correct entrance), marched over to them, but stopped short. If he registered that Hope was there, he showed no sign of it.
        “Boneguard Seven, I am Commander Porth of the 17th Division of His Majesty the Implacable Warrick Wane’s infantry.” His voice sounded gravelly and forced. “You are under arrest for a multitude of crimes against His Majesty.”
        Hope lofted a perfect brow. “‘His Majesty?’ Does Sir Wane fancy himself a king now?”
        “Nay,” Seven replied. “Self-proclaimed emperor.”
        Commander Porth appeared scandalized. “Arrest him!” he exclaimed, and the undead horde, moving as one, pointed their weapons at Boneguard Seven. Hope raised a hand.
        “You will not harm him. He is my protector and is therefore under my protection.
        Porth ignored her. “Advance! Take him!”
        “I’m a little surprised by their tenacity,” Hope admitted.
        “I did try to warn you,” Seven replied. Neither sounded particularly concerned.
        Suddenly, the veil under which Nine has cast the remaining Boneguard dropped, and Boneguards Eight, Nine, Ten, and Twelve appeared immediately adjacent to Hope and Seven. Almost simultaneously with the two of them, Twelve called upon the power of their God.
        “Let there be light!”
        “Dawnmaker’s kiss upon your brow!”
        “Ignite the dead!”
        And like that, a wave of divine energy flowed through all three of them, channeled through their bodies, tempered by their faith, and exploding forth from them in all directions, destroying the creatures immediately surrounding them as well as many more as the explosive circle expanded. Finally, it waned, clearing a swath thirty feet in every direction. Only Commander Porth still stood there, and his desiccated form looked blasted and torn, yellowed bone poking through sallow flesh.
        Power rippled from the hands of Boneguards Eight and Nine, each colored the same as their eyespark, and Ten hefted a mighty hammer that crackled with blue flame. Seven had drawn his sword and Twelve held aloft a simple wooden sigil of the sun, the holy symbol of Zoratzu. Hope smiled at Porth.
        “Return to your master and tell him that this world will be free of his rule once and for all. Tell him that Hope has returned to the people of this world!”
        Porth was glancing around him. There was nothing left of the undead that had been standing there, no trace that they had ever been there at all. Every part of his own body that was not protected by armor was blasted clean of the withered flesh that had covered it, scorching his bones. In the end, he thought better of a direct confrontation.
        “Fall back!” he ordered. The remainder of the undead army moved away from the Tomb to the north. Twelve and Hope turned to Seven. Seven was staring at his hands, his amber eyespark flickering not at all.
        “You invoked Zoratzu’s power!” Twelve exclaimed.
        “Your power has returned to you,” Hope said softly. “As I said it would after you righted your wrong.”
        “It has been so long…” whispered Seven. “I thought… I thought…”
        “Zoratzu never abandons his faithful,” Hope said quietly. “He only leaves them alone so that they may sort things out.”
        “This is a lovely moment,” Nine said, “truly. But Porth is no fool. He will contact Sir Wane the moment he is out of our sight and who knows what Warrick Wane is now capable of.”
        “Of course,” Hope said. “Back into the Tomb. We will need supplies. And I expect I will need something to wear more than a tapestry.”
        “Why?” Eight asked as the group moved toward the Tomb’s entrance.
        “I’m going to put a stop to this,” Hope replied. “The Lost Heroes have made a mockery of the world they helped to shape. And I am going to put it right.”
        “How?” Nine sounded dubious.
        Hope stopped and turned, her eyes burning with purpose and passion.
        “By putting this world to rest once and for all. If I am the last, let me be the last.” And she strode into the Tomb.

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