Dem Bones Christine Morgan (firstname.lastname@example.org) 1995 Author's Note: this story was intended for publication in an anthology of Magic: The Gathering stories, but Wizards of the Coast restructured their fiction department out of existance before it could happen. Oh, well.Dem Bones / Copyright 1996 - Tim Morgan / email@example.com
Klatten had my ulna again. It didn't fit him, but he kept trying to jam it into his elbow. I hobbled over to him, still missing half of my left foot, and knocked him on the skull with my radius. I hadn't attatched it yet, so I held it in my right hand like a club. It made a hollow clunk when it hit. His empty sockets turned toward me. "Nwawn?" he asked, unable to speak clearly without his lower jaw. "Give it back," I said, gesturing to the ulna. "That one's mine." He stared at it, tried once more to make it fit, and handed it to me with a shrug. I snapped it into place, attatched the radius, and limped off in search of my wrist and hand bones. I accidentally kicked Ogri's skull just as she was reaching for it, and it skittered musically across a xylophone of loose ribs. "Sorry," I said, picking up the skull. It nodded in my grip. I gave it to Ogri's headless body. Ogri had the finest bone structure I'd seen in a long time. Her ribs were exceptionally nicely stacked. It was a real pleasure to watch the sway of her pelvis as she clicked her skull into place. She grinned at me, which could have meant anything. Without lips, grinning was all we could do. I am a skeleton. At some point in the past, horrible as it was to imagine, I had been a living man with a thick layer of flesh and muscle and skin. As those had fallen away, so had my memory. Now I could not recall anything prior to clawing my way from a shallow grave. I found my wristbones. Remarkably, my fingers were all still hooked on. Nearby were the rest of my foot bones, scattered like pick-up-sticks. I sat down and puzzled them back together. Finally all in once piece again, I got up and surveyed the area to see who still needed help. Ogri and Klatten were reassembled, but Dokk was still dragging his headless and legless torso around in circles. Mirg had lost even more vertebrae. He only reached my shoulder now, and at the rate he was going would probably soon be the size of a child. He was fat too, not weighed down with living meat of course but very broadly built. Ogri came over to Mirg and I. "Fools," she said, shaking her skull. "Why do they do it?" "They fancy themselves heroes," Mirg replied, finding one of Dokk's legs under a dead horse. He and Klatten helped Dokk repair himself as Ogri and I studied the wreckage. There had been three of them, a trio of mounted bright- armored figures. Beneath their metal shells, their bones were heavily sheathed in flesh. One of them had been female, the others male. Their pennants and surcoats, once so white as to be blinding, were now soaked with mud and blood. "More and more of them," Ogri mused. "Where do they come from?" "Castle White," I said. "A vampire told me of it once. These knights train there, then go out into the world on quests." "Why here? Do they not realize that the tombs are defended? What do they hope to find?" "Glory," Dokk's head said. I looked down and saw that I was about to step on it. I picked it up and tossed it to Klatten, who snapped it onto the knobby end of Dokk's spine. "Glory?" Ogri echoed. "That, or the legendary treasure of the Wraith Lord," Dokk said. Mirg laughed. "That must be it! Do they know that the treasure consists of a dented silver pot, a broken sword, and a bare handful of coins?" "Probably not. Those ones, though, even if they knew, it wouldn't stop them. They see us as an evil scourge to be cleansed from the land." Dokk was the oldest among us, the most philosophical. "Well, can't the Wraith Lord do anything about it?" Ogri asked. "I remember the last time we were attacked by knights. It took ages to clean up the mess. Headstones tipped over, bones scattered, vampires dragged out in the sun, rats trampled underhoof -- why, it was awful!" "What could the Wraith Lord do?" Klatten shrugged. "He's dead." We all looked at him. If we had still had eyes to roll or eyebrows to raise, we would have. "Dead or not, he's powerless," Mirg said. "His wraith guardians have all been destroyed. The zombies do not heed him. The spectres make fun of him. The graveyard needs a new ruler." "Mirg!" Ogri gasped. "That's treason!" "That's truth," he shot back. "It is time for a change." "Who could take his place?" I asked. "You can't mean the Zombie Master!" "Bad Moon, no!" Mirg said. "I have no love for the zombies." "Nor I," Ogri added, shuddering so that her bones rattled. "They would be so much more tolerable if the rest of the meat rotted off them." "Who, then?" I said. "One of the vampires? They're strong." "They're weak," Klatten argued. "Dependent on blood. I think it should be one of us." We all looked at him again, but this time our sockets were filled with surprise instead of annoyance. Klatten fidgeted under those multiple empty gazes. "Well, it should," he said. "Why not? We're strong, fast, clever. We can reassemble ourselves -- who else in the graveyard can do that? Think of it! We could dig up all those bones that don't fit anyone and build walls around the graveyard. That would keep the knights out." "He has a point," Mirg said slowly. "This is madness!" Dokk burst out. "What beyond are you howling from?" "I think it's a good idea!" Ogri said. Klatten's spine straightened at her approval. "Wait, wait," I said as Dokk was readying another protest. "Let's knock our skulls around a bit more on this. How would we do it?" "And which of us would rule?" Mirg added. "One thing at a time," Klatten said, waving his hands. He turned to me, still standing tall, his jaw thrust arrogantly forward, preening for Ogri's sockets. "We could overpower the Wraith Lord, seal him in a tomb, or bury him face-down." "Why would the others accept one of us?" I pressed. "The rats would," Ogri said. "We could offer them plunder rights to the pauper's graves, instead of chasing them off." "The spectres wouldn't care," Klatten said. "Neither would any of the other insubstantials. That leaves the vampires." "And Yatter," I said. "Oh. Yatter." Klatten fell silent. After a lengthy pause, he added, "He doesn't belong here. He should be down in the Pit with the rest of his kind." "Well, he isn't," I said. "He is here, and he could cause trouble." "For us or the Wraith Lord," Ogri chimed in. "Maybe he'd be on our side." "What could we offer him?" Mirg wondered aloud. "What does Yatter like?" "To cause trouble," I said. "I still can't believe my ear-holes," Dokk said, fixing each of us in turn with a stare. "You have no idea how to overthrow the Wraith Lord, no plan, nothing but skulls full of moonbeams." Ogri planted her hands on her hipbones with an audible clack. "Do you have any ideas?" she challenged. "The Throne of Bone," Dokk said. "I thought that was just a story for ghoulings," Klatten said skeptically. "No, it's true!" Ogri said. "I heard all about it from Yatter!" "Him again," Klatten sighed. "What did he say?" Ogri was fairly dancing with excitement, and I wasn't the only one of us that paused to watch appreciatively. "The Throne was made from dragonbones, and anyone that sits upon it will become the most powerful of his or her kind! Yatter said he had a cousin that sat on the Throne, and he's Lord of the Pit now!" "Is that how the Wraith Lord and the Zombie Master got their power?" Mirg asked. "It must be!" she said. "So if one of us sat upon it --" "Skeleton King!" Klatten cried. "Or Queen," I reminded him. Ogri gave me a pleased look. "Let's go!" Klatten said, ignoring me. He marched several steps before realizing what the rest of us already knew. He turned back, cocking his skull sheepishly. "Where is it?" "We don't know," I said. "Yatter would. We'll have to ask him." "I don't like Yatter," Klatten complained, but he followed readily enough as Ogri led us through the graveyard to the demon's lair. The stones ringing the old well were crumbling and thick with slimy moss. The rotted remains of the bucket lay nearby, amid a coil of rope that resembled a dead snake. A vague stench wafted up. The water at the bottom was murky, filmed with an oily sheen. Yatter's nest was on a large pile of stone protruding islandlike from the water. He had made the nest from discarded shrouds, mummy wrappings, rat hair, and other unmentionables. Ogri called, "Yatter?" A pair of urine-yellow eyes glowed up at us. I could make out the shape of the demon. He was small, about the size and shape of a malnourished vulture. His wings were batlike folds beneath spindly arms no thicker than my own. His face was a horror of snaggle teeth and wet, quivery snout. "Someone wants Yatter, oh?" His voice was the harsh grate of an unoiled crypt door. "We need to know where the Throne of Bone is," I called, hearing my voice echo hollowly down the well. Yatter laughed, a high unpleasant shriek utterly devoid of mirth. "Someone wants to take over the tombs, oh? Someone wants to brave the forest, oh?" "The forest?" I repeated, the empty space within my ribs sinking down to my patellas. The others shared my feeling. The planes and angles of Klatten's skull were suddenly whiter, as if bleached. Mirg's jaw clacked convlusively. Dokk took a half-step back and tapped the ridge over his socket in an ancient gesture to ward off misfortune. Only Ogri seemed undaunted. "The forest isn't so bad," she said confidently. "What is there to fear?" "It's disgusting!" Dokk said. "Teeming with life. Fruit. Seeds. Renewal. Clear water. Fleshy creatures with litter after litter of young. When something dies, it sinks into the earth and new life grows from the rot!" "That's where the Throne is, oh?" Yatter chortled. "Made of dragonbone, oh? The craw decided it was sacred and stole it away, oh? Put it in a secure grove guarded by elves and craw, oh?" "Well, maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all," Klatten said. "Nonsense! It's a wonderful idea!" Ogri insisted. "We could go there." "We should," I added. "That Throne belongs to the graveyard, not the craw. It's our duty to get it back." "Duty!" Klatten sneered. "You sound like one of those knights from Castle White!" "I think he's very brave," Ogri said, moving closer to me. "Someone's going to the forest, oh?" Yatter chuckled. "Yatter will come along, oh?" He scrambled up the well, clawed hands and feet gripping with spiderlike ease. He crouched on the edge, barbed tail lashing behind him. Ogri and I exchanged a glance. "Um, no thank you," I said carefully, not wanting to offend Yatter. He was, after all, a minion of the Pit. Some would argue that the Pit weilded more influence than the graveyard. Me, I wasn't about to argue or debate. I just didn't like the imp. He had a knack for pitting (pardon the pun) beings against one another, stirring up grudges, inspiring violence. "No thank you needed, oh?" Yatter said. He sprang from his perch to my shoulder. The feel of his scaly, leathery talons wrapped around my collarbone and scapula cooled my marrow. "We'd be happy to have you join us," Ogri said, ever the diplomat. "We?" blurted Klatten. "You're going?" She gave him an arch look. "Yes. And we should hurry, before the Wraith Lord learns of this." * * * "We're getting too close," Klatten said nervously. "I can see the castle." To reach the nearest edge of the forest, we had to leave the concealing embrace of the swamps that surrounded the graveyard and venture into the vast plains. In the distance, shimmering like pearl, were the spires and towers of Castle White. Twice now, we had evaded bands of unicorns. Only once, thankfully, we had come across the telltale tracks of lions. Ogri was studying the impossibly blue sky. "It's hard to believe that is the same sky over our graveyard. I am so accustomed to it being grey, or storm-laden. And look!" She pointed at the diving and swooping shapes of winged creatures in the distance. "Flying horses?" "No, angels," I said. Yatter cringed against me. "Hide Yatter, oh? Angels very bad for imps, oh?" "Angels very bad for skeletons, too, if they see us," Klatten said. "They'll not see us," I reassured them. "The grass is high, and nearly as pale as our bones. If Yatter stays low and we make haste, we'll be fine." "Angels," Ogri sighed. "How beautiful!" She shaded her sockets against the unexpectedly bright sun and watched the graceful aerobatics. We had often watched the vampires and spectres fly, black- winged and grim-purposed. These angels, with their wings of light, flew with a joy and delight that soon unnerved me. I turned away. "Oh-oh," Ogri said. "They're flying this way." "We're doomed," Klatten said. I had trouble hearing him becuase Yatter had begun to squeal into my ear-hole. I finaly seized Yatter. His skin felt loathesome and hot even to my fingers. I dropped him into the rib-high grass and he immediately twined his limbs around my legs. He kept squealing until I rapped him on the head with my knuckles. If someone had told me a few days ago that I would be knocking a Pit minion on the head, I would not have believed it. Dokk and Mirg, who had stayed behind to watch over the graveyard in our absence, would have laughed. Ogri crouched gracefully beside me. Klatten had thrown himself full-length and folded his arms over his skull. "What shall we do?" Ogri asked. "They might not have seen us, but then again ..." "They might," I finished. "Is there anything in your bag that might help?" She looked down at herself in surprise, evidently having forgotten that she wore a satchel of woven swampgrass. Inside were the few useful trinkets we have been able to scrounge from the various tombs. She took out a knife with a rusted blade and a tarnished Rod of Ruin, both useless against creatures as powerful as the angels. Then, with a small cry of triumph, she held up a fist-sized glass sphere filled with swirling dark mist. Ogri stood and threw the sphere as far as she could. It twinkled as it sailed through the air and then was out of sight. We heard it shatter as it landed. At first, nothing happened. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sky began to dim. The grass shriveled and drooped. Corpse-white fog crept along the ground, obscuring Klatten. The previously gentle breeze took on a mournful note. The angels faltered in their flight. Their wings seemed to lose their luster. A sense of hopelessness and despair would be filling them, a cloak of anguish and futility muffling their holy brightness. Klatten's skull popped out of the fog like a grisly Jack-In-The- Box. Yatter scrambled back to my shoulder, darting his snout around curiously. "What happened, oh?" Yatter asked. "A gloom sphere," Ogri explained. "We should be swift. They'll probably have a way to undo it, and we'll want to be gone before they do." "Agreed," I said. I hauled Klatten to his feet. Though this had all originally been his idea, he had clearly never expected anyone to take him up on it. His stiff-necked pride demanded that he go along, but he was no leader. I'd never considered myself one either and it was strange to find myself in that role. By the time the sphere's effect dissipated or was dispelled, we had nearly reached the forest. Blue sky, bright sun, and a hundred shades of green overwhelmed our sockets. Splashes of color from flowers and bright-plumed birds added to the dizzying scene. It sounded and smelled as vivid as it looked. Rich, ripe, and full of life. And it was huge! How were we supposed to find the Throne of Bone in there? The trunks were as thickly packed as plague victims in a mass grave. The ground was buried under a mass of greenery. Once we entered the forest, we wouldn't even be able to see the sky through the leaves. Even Ogri finally seemed apprehensive. The birdsong, the reedy trill of insects -- not that insects were strangers to us, no indeed. We lived skull and mandible with worms, beetles, and other carrion eaters. Those scavengers would be found in the woods, but they would be joined by colorful butterflies and ladybugs. Those sounds found company in a host of others: various animal cries, the ominous shift and rustle of the bushes, the stealthy whisper of new shoots pushing theough the earth. And all conspired to send shivers up our spines and make our teeth clatter. We looked back. Suddenly the wide-open plains looked positively inviting, and the thought of our graveyard home was even more so. "Go back or go forward, oh?" Yatter said. Even the imp was uncharacteristically subdued. Ogri reached for my hand and Klatten's. Her slim fingerbones folded around ours. Hand-in-hand like ghoulings playing a game, we stepped into the forest. * * * When I could see again, the first thing I saw was the fletched shaft of an arrow jutting out of my head. The point was broken off and rattled around inside my skull. I tried to turn my head to see what was going on, and discovered that it was no longer attatched to the rest of me. My body was a short distance away, undamaged except for being headless. It stood and began fumbling in my skull's direction. Ogri was quicker, picking up my skull and prying the arrow out. I grinned up at her. She juggled my head from hand to hand, then tossed it to my body. I caught it, almost dropped it, did a brief juggling act of my own, and finally managed to slam it down on my neck. It was backwards. Ogri gave me a gentle slap, spinning my skull around to face her. "That's better," she laughed. "Thank you," I said. "What happened?" "Elves," she said. "The first shot tore your head off. There were three of them. They had arrows leveled at us. They started asking questions, demanding to know what we were doing here. They sounded reasonable, except that you were lying there in pieces. Then Klatten attacked. I have no idea why --" "I do," I said grimly. "Yatter." "Yatter! Of course! He'd just been complaining that this was a boring journey. He must have tricked Klatten into fighting them." "Where are they?" "Klatten is reassembling. I don't know where Yatter went. The elves, well ..." she gestured to three twisted husks of tissue loosely encased in green tunics. I noticed she held the Rod of Ruin in her other hand. Tarnished it may have been, but still effective. "There may be more of them. We need to find Yatter and keep moving." I prodded the elves with my foot to see if they had anything that might be of use to us. Their bows and arrows were of exceptional quality but none of us were skilled with such weapons. One of them had been wearing a green gem on a leather thong. I took it and slung it around my own neck, though I disliked the way it felt bouncing against my sternum. The gem seemed to pulse with a lifebeat that was alien yet strangely familiar. Klatten was muttering to himself as he popped his shoulder back into place. His jawbone was missing again, so most of what he said was unintelligible. It was probably for the best. By the tone, he was uttering vile oaths. As Ogri helped him find himself, I went searching for Yatter. He was poorly hidden behind a log, unaware that his tail was visible. Moving silently over a carpet of moss, I crept up and grabbed his tail. I yanked him up so that he was dangling upside-down eye-to-socket with me. "Greetings, Yatter," I said. He smiled at me. His teeth were like a fence around a haunted house. "Looking for Yatter, oh?" "Oh, yes. What were you trying to do?" "Having fun, oh? Meaning no harm, oh?" He widened his smile into a hideous display. I gave him a good shaking and bounced his head against the log for good measure. Once again, some part of me was dimly surprised that I would dare treat a denizen of the Pit in such a manner. "Don't do it again!" "Won't do it again, oh? Promise, oh?" "Good enough." I dropped him. Instead of landing on his head, he writhed mid-air and landed on all fours. "Yatter promise, oh? But maybe Yatter lie, oh?" I reached for him again but he scooted backwards and left me with handsful of empty air. "Yatter just playing, oh? Skeletons too thin-skinned, oh?" He laughed shrilly at his own joke. I glowered at him and stalked away. He pattered after me, ducking aside every time I tried to swat him. He was too fast and I eventually gave up. Ogri and Klatten were ready, so we continued into the forest. We walked without any particular destination, just picking our way through the bushes in hopes of finding something. It seemed a hopeless quest until we came to a place where the trees had been knocked over. I say knocked over, but they had really been flattened, pulverised, and in some cases ground to pulp beneath something huge and heavy. Even in the graveyard, we had heard tales of the craw, those fearsome wurms whose passage shook the earth and destroyed nearly everything in their path. "Maybe this trail leads to the Throne," Ogri said. "We should follow it." "Maybe it leads to a massive craw," Klatten argued. "This was your idea in the first place," she said, scowling at him. "When did you become such a coward? I've seen more backbone in a slug! If you want to go back, go back. Otherwise, stop your complaining." His jaw dropped, then snapped shut. Yatter chortled. "Come on," I said. "We'll follow the craw path." We did, and for us, it was a worse nightmare than any living creature's dreams of the grave. We were surrounded on all sides by thick, fragrant greenery. Our footbones sank into rich soil. We glimpsed bears, boars, other animals. Some of them could have posed a danger to us, but they paused only long enough to stare at us with startled bulbous eyes before fleeing into the concealing emerald shadows. A time or two, Ogri and I thought we detected the presence of a druid, one of those shy folk who devote their lives to the woodlands. And always, always, the unforgettable signs of the craw. Here a bent and splintered pine, there a streambed widened into a muddy pool, an irregular scattering of discarded scales as green as leaves but much larger, once a pile of droppings deep enough to bury Yatter. After listening to the imp's chatter for several miles, the thought was tempting. Ogri's keen sockets sighted the elves first. She hissed a warning and we hid ourselves. I clamped my fingers over Yatter's mouth before he could taunt us into attacking. There seemed to be two distinct groups of them. Some were similar to the kind that had ambushed us before, long of limb and carrying bows. The others were smaller, with sharper features, each enveloped in a hazy greenish aura. Though we could not hear them from this distance, it was clear that the groups were arguing. A long-haired archer was nose- to-nose with one of the smaller breed while the rest watched alertly. The elves stood in the midst of the craw trail, which continued past them to a clearing. Other trails, equally as large, converged on it from other directions. On the far side of the clearing was the mouth of a cavern in a rocky slope. The ground in front of the cave was littered with more of the scales. "That must be the place," Ogri whispered. "The Throne is in there!" "But how to we get past the elves?" Klatten asked, rubbing at his joints in memory of the accuracy and strength of their arrows. "Yatter, I think this is a task made for you," I said. "Those elves are already arguing. Can you bring them to blows, without giving away our presence?" "Yatter can do, oh? Make for a big fight, oh? But must get closer, oh?" I turned to Ogri and Klatten. "You two stay here. We shall try to sneak up on them." They nodded, Ogri with reluctance and Klatten with undisguised relief. "Why you coming too, oh?" Yatter asked. "Do not play innocent with me, Yatter. Innocence looks ridiculous on an imp," I said. "I'm going with you to make sure those elves attack each other, not us." He opened his eyes even wider. "Yatter would never, oh?" "Yatter might," I countered. "Which is why I'm going with you." I kept a firm grip on his lumpy shoulder and we left the craw trail, creeping through the bushes toward the elves. Yatter could be quiet when he wanted, and the denizens of the grave moved with their own unnatural silence, so we were able to approach quite close. We could soon hear their argument, which was over something called a "mox emerald." The smaller clan had loaned it to the archers, and evidently the archers had lost it. Now the smaller clan were demanding it back. I felt the gem resting against my sternum and wondered if this was the source of their dispute. It seemed likely. Yatter noticed it for the first time and cringed back. "Life magic, oh?" he muttered unhappily. "Little elves very strong with sorcery, oh? Hide it, oh? Get rid of it, please, oh?" "I wonder if we could arrange a trade," I mused. "Their gem for our Throne." "Never work, oh?" Yatter said. "Too heavy to carry is the Throne, and no time to escape with it, oh? Elves would just as soon shoot you into pieces and pick gem from your loose ribs, oh?" "Oh," I said. "True. Better, then, that we do it your way." Inspiration struck me then, like the light of a will o' the wisp bursting over my skull. "But if you set them to attack us, and we survive, I'll make you carry the gem." Yatter whined and groveled until I dangled the jewel threateningly in front of his nose, then agreed. He squatted on a fallen log, peering through the bushes at the elves, and began to hiss and whisper and make vicious gestures with his taloned hands. As he did, the elves became increasingly agitated. Their voices grew louder until they were yelling. Many archers fingered their arrows as if longing to set them to string. The other ones glowered and the aura around them deepened in color, intensified, a reflection of their anger. I could not help but be impressed by Yatter's power. Moments after he began, the long-haired archer struck the smaller one, bringing blood to the corner of his mouth. A mere breath after that, all of the elves were joined in furious combat. Some bowstrings twanged, though many weapons were cast aside and war was waged with bare hands, kicks, and bites. The taller, stronger archers had the advantage physically, but the smaller evidently possessed some magical powers that enabled them to briefly grow huge in size, making the battle more even. Yatter bounced on the log, gnashing his teeth, transported with savage delight. Nearly all of the elves had fallen when the rest suddenly came to their senses and in horror fled the carnage. "Well done, Yatter!" I said. "We'll have to be quick. Those elves may return." Ogri and Klatten hurried to us, and we all picked our way through the strewn bodies to the clearing. Yatter was still panting from his exertion and excitement, grinning, his tongue lolling like a rat's on a hot day. The cave was even larger than it had appeared, yet oddly dark within. We strained our sockets and could see nothing. Until the enormous scaled head rushed at us out of the blackness. The head was followed by the length of the wurm, coiling, flexing, unflexing, surging forward with terrible speed. It struck us and scattered us like ninepins. I glimpsed Ogri's torso bouncing by, shedding bones. The wurm's narrow tail struck me with an idle flick and I went sailing backwards. My legs hit something and splintered. The rest of me flipped end over end. A sharp rock punched a hole in my skull, letting in dreary grey light. The elvish arrowhead, which had still been caught inside, was thrown clear. I finally came to a bumpy stop. I braced myself on what was left of my arms and more or less sat up. Yatter was the only one not hurt by the attack. The imp was capering in glee. I realized that he, with better sight than us, had seen the wurm and inspired its attack. The wurm itself, having plowed through us, was pondorously turning. Its hide bore several scratches, not mortal injuries but enough to slow the beast. Ogri's arm was laying near me, twitching convulsively. Tangled around her humerus was the swampgrass bag, and poking from the bag was the Rod of Ruin. I lunged for it as the wurm lowered its head for a second charge. It would be the true and final death if the wurm struck us again before we had time to reassemble. I seized the Rod of Ruin, pointed it at the wurm, and pressed the polished black stone that triggered its destructive power. I don't know what I was expecting, a burst of unlight, perhaps, or a cold wind, or some sort of sound, but there was nothing. Nothing, until the wurm's advance faltered. It began to shake. Its large eyes rolled. Its mouth opened so wide that I could see down its throat, then slammed shut with tooth-cracking force. The wurm writhed, its muscular coils churning the earth. The whip tail that had sent me flying now sheared entirely through a tree. Scales flew off. Under its leathery skin, the wurm's flesh sagged and melted. When it finally collapsed and died, it looked quite a bit like the elves that Ogri had killed, only much, much larger. I hitched myself toward the nearest of my legs, hardly able to believe what had happened. We, three skeletons from the graveyard, had slain a craw, one of the most fearsome denizens of the forest. Ogri was slowly gathering herself, but Klatten was the worst I'd ever seen. He had been dragged under the wurm, ground into fragments. Some of his bones looked powdered. Could he repair such damage, or would this be the true death for him? He had been a braggart and something of a fool, but he had been one of our kind and a friend. Ogri's skull turned in my direction. "Is it dead?" she asked. I nodded. "How are you?" "All right, I think. Have you seen my arms?" "There's one over here, and that might be one." I held the broken ends of my femurs together until they fused, then snapped them into my hips while she found her arms. When we were both back together, we went to the largest accumulation of Klatten. He was moving, or trying to. I picked up the biggest pieces, while Ogri used her swampgrass bag to sweep the dust into a pile. "It was Yatter, wasn't it?" Ogri asked as we worked. "It was Yatter. Where did he go?" I had lost sight of the imp in my concern about the craw, and now Yatter had slipped away. "There!" she cried. "He's trying to get to the Throne!" I looked, and saw Yatter about to enter the cave. "Yatter!" I shouted. There might be more craw, or the elves might be close, but I did not care. I raised the Rod. "Yatter, stop, or I'll use this!" He glanced back over his shoulder, and terror twisted his features. Instead of stopping, he sprang into the dark opening. "Bad Moon blast his bones!" I ran after him, awkward on unsteady legbones. "Help Klatten and then come after me!" The cave was huge. The ceiling soared high overhead, dripping with stalactites. The longest of these had been broken off by the passage of the craw and joined the crushed bed of limestone underfoot. Here and there, stubs of stalagmites poked through the gravel. The light from the opening was soon swallowed by the shadows. I had seen enough to know that the cave extended nearly straight back and down, a tunnel leading into the earth. I could hear Yatter moving too swiftly for stealth. I followed as fast as I dared, the gem bouncing and rattling against my ribs. My sockets soon detected a golden glow ahead, but before I could see what the source was, I heard a deep rumbling roar punctuated by Yatter's shrill squeal. Another craw! Possibly the mate of the one I had slain. Forgetting caution, I plunged onward into the vast cavern at the end of the tunnel. I was brought to a halt by the sight before me. My first thought was that the knights of Castle White were on the wrong track if they were seeking the hoard of the Wraith Lord. They should be venturing here in their treasure-seeking, for the wealth of the craw was comparable only to the legendary fortunes of the Elder Dragons. The floor of the cavern was covered with piles of treasure. Coins of gold and silver, chests overflowing with jewels, strings of pearls from the far-off sea, harps and chalices and enameled boxes, suits of shimmering mail, gem-encrusted swords, shields with colorful blazons. There were artifacts such that the world had not seen in many years, the motionless hulk of a black stone golem, a fantastically-designed flying machine, other things that defied description. The golden glow came from lamps that burned without flame, reflecting off the precious metals. Yatter was here, still alive, though I could see that he would not remain so for long. Another craw, paler green than the first, was leisurely pursuing the imp along trails that wound between the piles. Whenever Yatter scrambled to safety atop a heap of gold, the craw would knock it asunder with an idle flick of the tail. Against one wall, enjoying a place of honor, was the Throne of Bone. It was majestic, ivory-yellow, smooth. The back was a fan- shape of curved ribs. The craw darted its head and snapped at Yatter. He leapt straight up, desperately trying to fly on his inadequate wings, and landed on the craw's snout. This clearly puzzled the craw, which began tossing its head back and forth trying to shake the imp loose. Yatter was tossed high in the air, shrieking. He crashed into a chest, splintering the wood and sending up a splash of brilliant jewels. The craw forced a new path through the treasure, hissing in anticipation. Yatter burst from the wreckage. He scrambled away from the craw, lost his balance, and tumbled down the side of a heap of treasure. He fetched up at the foot of the golem, upside-down, his clawed feet dangling in his face. The craw saw him and lunged. Yatter swarmed up the golem to its head and leaped. He spread his arms, causing his membranous wings to expand. He may not have been able to fly, but he could glide, and he glided right to the base of the Throne. "No!" I brought up the wand, hoping that I was close enough for its power to affect the imp. I was too late. Yatter dropped neatly onto the seat of the Throne, looking like a ghouling in his father's chair, and was immediately engulfed in a shower of sparks and smoke. The craw drew back, nostrils flared, no happier than I at this turn of events. "What is happening?" Ogri asked. I nearly jumped off my footbones. She and Klatten were right behind me. Klatten surveyed the cavern with undisguised greed. "Look at all of it!" he said. "A fortune!" Heedless of the craw, he dashed forward into plain sight and scooped up coins, letting them trickle through his phalanges. I started to go after him, and that was literally when Hell broke loose. Yatter rose from the cloud of smoke, or at least it might have once been Yatter. He was enormous, with wings to rival any dragon's, shaggy muscular goatish legs, a pelted powerful chest, spiraling red and black horns, a forked tail ending in two bladed appendages, triple-jointed arms with curved spurs at each joint, lambent orange eyes, and a mouth filled with barbed ridges instead of teeth. Ogri made a very small noise of despair. Klatten looked up, coins raining from his hands. I swear his sockets widened. The Yatter-thing stretched out his arms. He had eight taloned fingers on each hand, and in the center of each palm was a suckerlike mouth surrounded by clusters of reptilian eyes. He uttered a sound that was mingled laughter and roar. "Come to me," he called in a voice so deep it vibrated through my bones. He made a seizing, lifting gesture. "Come to me and feed me!" Klatten flew into the air, held by whatever invisible force this new Pit Lord weilded. He screamed so that I thought his skull must burst. He struggled, he kicked, and all to no avail. Ogri sprang forth but I grabbed her and threw the both of us to the floor. "Stay down!" I commanded. "We cannot help him now! You know that as well as I!" She ground her teeth in frustration, but she knew I was right. We had been taught from the grave that no force could stop a Pit Lord from feeding. I pulled her skull close against my ribs and turned my own face to the ground, but there was no way we could block our ear-holes from the terrible sound of Yatter crunching Klatten's bones. The craw hissed a challenge. It had gotten over its surprise and was now defending its lair. Alas, I knew that the mighty wurm was no match for the demon. I was compelled nonetheless to raise my head and watch. Yatter sneered as the craw advanced. The hollow space inside me, which had deepened with grief at the true death of my friend, now suddenly filled with fury. We had brought this on ourselves, in our foolishness and ambition. We had unleashed this terrible force upon the world and would pay the ultimate price. If only there was some way to help the craw! The very thought surprised me. To think that it had come to this, wishing to aid a denizen of the forest! Even as those thoughts crossed my skull, something bizarre happened. The charging craw suddenly swelled to far greater than its original size, in the same way the smaller elves had grown when fighting the archers. Its jutting fangs plunged into the demon's chest. Yatter roared again, this time in pain as well as fury. He dug his claws into the craw's scaled neck. Black ichor and red blood gushed from the combatants. The craw whipped its coils around the demon and began to squeeze in the manner of a huge snake. Yatter drove a thumb talon deep into the wurm's ear, spiking the brain. In its contorting death agonies, the coils convulsed. Yatter was crushed, his throat and head bulging from the terrible pressure exerted on his midsection. His eyes burst out in geysers of ichor. Gouts of the stuff also fountained from his mouth. Even accustomed as we were to gruesome sights, the simultaneous death of craw and demon made Ogri and I turn away. If we'd had gorges, they would have risen. If we'd eaten, we would have vomited. As it was, all we could do was cling to each other and try not to hear the final thrashings of the two large bodies. When at last we dared look again, the craw had diminished to its normal size. I glanced quickly around the cave for the elves that had used sorcery upon it, but we were alone. "How?" I wondered aloud. "You're glowing," Ogri said. I looked down at myself. Green light was radiating from the emerald on my sternum, casting the sticklike shadow of my ribs on the wall behind me. I reached for the leather thong, meaning to tear the loathesome thing off, when before our very sockets the glow faded. "You did it," Ogri said. "You made that wurm grow, using this!" She tapped the quiescent jewel. "No," I said, badly shaken. "I am no elf, no sorceror." "You did," she insisted. "This stone somehow holds the power of the forests, but you, a skeleton, can use it! Do you know what this means? Even without the Throne, you have power to be reckoned with! And with the Throne ..." "No," I said again. "That would be too much. You sit upon the Throne. Skeleton Queen, as I said before." "And you can be my sorceror consort, and rule at my side!" She folded her fingerbones around mine. "With all this wealth, and the Rod as my scepter, not even the zombies would dispute us." "Consort?" I blurted, feeling foolish and strange. The planes and angles of my face felt warm. True, I had harbored my secret fancies about Ogri, but I had always thought them well-buried. As if reading my thoughts, she laughed. "You are as transparent as a shade. Did you never guess that I felt the same about you?" "Never. But I am glad." I leaned close and lightly bumped my skull against hers. The moment was sweet, but all too short. She surveyed the cavern and turned to me. "The emerald has the power of the forests, the powers of life and rebirth. Can you bring Klatten back?" I looked at Yatter. His ichor-splattered face was frozen in a grimace. All that remained of our companion was a sprinkling of bone dust and some marrow drops on the demon's chest, and a sliver of bone stuck between Yatter's teeth. Holding up the emerald, I focused my will upon it and imagined Klatten whole and moving again. The stone did begin to glow, but the power flickered aimlessly around the cavern until I had to admit that it was hopeless. To test my new abilities, I tried the same thing on Yatter and the craw. Neither moved, possibly due in part to my reluctance to have to fight either of them. "That's all right," Ogri said, patting me on the scapula. "It will take time to learn the emerald's limits. Should I --" she motioned toward the Throne. "Yes." I offered my arm. "Quickly, before the elves return." She stepped around craw coils and climbed the mountain of gold as gracefully as if ascending a staircase. She ran a hand along the armrest, grinned at me, and said, "I am a bit nervous." "As am I," I said. I stooped and picked up a crown from the treasure. It was silver and gold, intricately worked, winking and flashing with diamonds. "Go on." She sat. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the cloud of smoke and sparks swirled around her, concealing her from my sight. I heard her gasp once, in wonder or in pain I could not be sure. The smoke cleared. "Ogri?" I asked, clutching the crown. "Are you all right?" "Yes," she said. "I am well. Better than I dared imagine!" Her voice had changed. It was lower now, husky, sultry. Her voice was not all that had changed. She was taller, imposing. Bluish flames danced in her sockets. She had always been pretty but had now attained a beauty that few beings living or dead would ever reach. Her bones had lightened from ivory to purest white, made even starker against the black gown that draped low on her clavicles. The back of the collar swept upward in a fan shape to frame her skull. Pearly white claws now tipped her phalanges and her canine teeth were longer, pointed, delicately curved in the manner of a vampire. I held out the crown. She inclined her bare skull toward me. "The Queen is dead," I said as I set it in place. "Long exist the Queen." "Many troubles yet lay before us," she said. "The elves, Castle White, our own folk in the graveyard. It will be difficult. But in the end, all will be well." And it was. * * * The End
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