Heather passed the spyglass back to Ramdas, and he collapsed it and stowed it into a saddlebag. She appreciated the spyglass as a tool, something perfectly useful without a hint of magic imbued to it.
“What did you see, Caballero?” asked Ramdas.
Heather pointed her finger towards the cave, and her finger followed a wandering path down the mountain. “Brown streaks on the stone. Dried blood, sir. They’re dragging the corpses into the cave. Probably as a cache, or maybe one of our necromancers is already at work in there. Either way, the sooner we act, the less of those horrors we’ll have to face.”
“Agreed,” Ramdas said. He turned to look to Helga. “Stengrav, you could collapse the cave if called for?”
“Not from here,” said Helga, lifting her hammer. “I’m like Blackthorne, I channel best through my tools. Have to get close enough to hit it, sir, if you want it done fast.”
Ramdas checked his rapier. “Then we approach swiftly, and watch for movement. Whether it is one of the men responsible for this horror, or just a cache, we destroy them and deny them whatever we can.”
Persephone said a brief prayer over her stirrups, and Heather favored her Lieutenant with a glance. She doesn’t look frightened today, not like before. After what we’ve already been through, a cave full of corpses doesn’t sound nearly as terrifying.
“Don’t get numb, Lieutenant,” Heather said to Persephone.
Persephone gave Heather a puzzled glance. “Numb?”
“Numb. Don’t get numb. The more you let yourself feel, the better your magic will be in the fight. Keep your mind going, floating like a cork on the ocean. So you keep thinking, no matter how big the feelings are.”
Persephone gave her a measuring look. “That’s what you do, Blackthorne?”
Heather swallowed. “As often as I’m able. I try not to waste my mind fighting how I feel, unless it’s hurting my work.”
“Does it do that, often?”
The question was an innocent one, but it scalded Heather, and she looked away. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “But I don’t let that stop me from doing my job.”
Persephone nodded thoughtfully. “Don’t be numb,” she repeated, and squared her jaw, eyes turning angry as she stared up towards the cave.
Ramdas gestured behind them. “Watch our flanks for skeletons, Blackthorne. Let’s advance.”
They made the rest of the climb up the rocky spine of the ridge, all eyes scanning around them, marking the long distances between their position and the skeletons dragging in corpses.
Heather kept one eye on the distant, white specks of skeletons moving far below on the tundra plain. Wonder how many that makes, now? They must be picking off travellers and hunters. One squad for fresh corpses, probably another squad for burial creches. Fast skeletons for chasing down the living, but strong corpses for moving the stones covering graves. Saints damn it. I’ve never seen a necromancer so organized before.
Wet, scraping sounds echoed out of the cave as they approached, occasionally punctuated by a metallic clunk of metal meeting stone. Heather shot Ramdas a cautionary glance. What in the name of the Saints is that sound? she thought.
Helga’s head came up sharply, and then her face took on a hard, puzzled frown, when the sound of metal scraping on stone sounded out again.
“What is it, Stengrav?” asked Heather.
“I’m not sure, dearie. I recognize the sound. I just can’t place it.”
Ramdas beckoned them on, head swivelling around looking for movement and undead that might spring out and attack. But nothing around the cave site moved as they approached. The entire team was cautious, their tense eyes scanning every ridge and boulder around them, expecting an ambush at any moment.
The wet, scraping sounds echoing out of the cave fell silent as they approached. Heather bristled, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up sharply. They know we’re here, she thought. Nobody bothered to say it, but weapons and shields were brought to the ready all around her, all eyes fixed on the entrance to the cave.
Heather’s training nagged at her. Put your eyes where the others aren’t. Look for what they won’t see. Trust in their eyes to see where they’re looking, put the Detective’s eyes everywhere else. Her eyes lifted, away from the yawning black of the cave mouth. Checking over the stone around them, looking for markings or signs.
A white scrape of bone dust on dark rock caught her eye. Fresh bone dust on rock, there. Dust is gouged by the entry path to our left, there’s a wire leading into–
Without thinking, her hand reached out and slapped Ramdas’ flank hard. She gave her pony a sharp kick. The centaur and pony alike gave a startled, reflexive bolt forward, straight towards the cave.
“RUN!” Heather bellowed.
Poleaxed, Helga and Persephone lunged their ponies forward, straight toward the mouth of the cave.
For Heather, time slowed, and the earth moved in their wake. A blast of heat and air slapped Heather off of her horse. Dust blew out of the side of the hill, flecks of stone ricocheting off of their armor. The ponies underneath screamed protest and fell, all three dumping their riders in the dirt. Stray rocks hitting stone reported like rifle shots, and slid down the slope in their wake.
Heather glanced back. Three smoking, dust-choked craters now lay in the wall where the explosions had come from. One wire-end still glowed orange, over deep fractures left in the rock face. Mining explosives, Heather thought.
She was still falling off of her horse, the ground rushing up to meet her as her screaming pony fell. Her father’s voice rose in the back of her mind, advice from Heather’s first lessons in armored riding: What do you do if you fall from a horse while you’re wearing armor? You let the armor take the brunt of it.
She went limp in the fall. Heather’s arms and knees met the rocky ground without any muscle tension, her chestplate following with a loud WHANG! Her helmet caught a rock, and the impact stunned her, but she had let her armor take the brunt of the blow. Bruising around my shoulders, throat, and browline later. Assuming there is a later, she thought.
She was first to her feet, mace in hand, shield in the other. The explosion was still echoing off of the mountain face around them. The horses were screaming, and the bitter smell of rock dust and dynamite filled the air, making her cough.
Horses are as good as dead. Someone could fix the rock shrapnel in their bellies, but there’s too many broken legs. Ramdas is getting up, thank the Saints. Looks like the chain barding took the brunt for him. He’s limping, but he’s moving. Everyone’s getting up.
Her thoughts came as fast as the world felt slow. It took the span of a breath for her to sweep her eyes around, to take in the aftermath, and then return her eyes to the cave. It should attack now, before we can recove-
Something long and green shot out of the blackness of the cave, writhing in the air like a snake. The tentacle lunged at Heather. Her shield rose in time, and she deflected it away with a ferocious swing of her arm. Even so, the blow took her from her feet, and she scrambled back as two more tentacles shot from the cave, fast enough for the tips to whistle in the air. Heather dove to the side again, and they cracked like whips inches overhead, then slammed into the earth where Heather had been standing moments before.
Heather’s eyes widened in fear. Each of those is as thick as my arm!
Helga’s shield deflected another swing of the long, green tentacles, knocking the dwarf rolling, and Heather’s shield slapped away another. But a third tentacle whipped overhead, out of their reach, and coiled around Persephone.
Like a toy on an elastic tugged violently by a child, Persephone flew through the air towards the cave. Her scream was a bloody, terrible thing, as her back bent wrong. She vanished into the blackness of the cave, her scream echoing louder than the ringing in their ears.
“NO!” screamed Helga. The dwarf flung her hammer into the cave, hurling it so hard that its passage through the air tugged at Heather’s tunic. It tore the dust hanging in the air into a whorling vortex in its wake.
Deep inside the cave, there came a sound as if two great brass cymbals had been clashed together. Heather staggered to her feet, the world swaying around her. Concussion from the blast, or the rock, Heather thought. We might need medical care.
Helga can see whatever we’re fighting, dwarves have better eyes for the dark. That wasn’t stone, or meat, that she hit. That sounded like… brass? Armor?
Ramdas charged in toward the cave, and his angry shout sent a bolt of white light shooting from his outstretched rapier. The light was bright enough to dazzle the eye, as it followed the path Helga’s hammer had taken a heartbeat ago.
The beam lit up the interior of the cave for a terrible moment. The dazzling light provided only a momentary glimpse, but it was bad enough.
Corpses hung from the ceiling, skeletons clinging to the stone overhead like bats. Some moved on their own, and others were still, only half-stripped of meat. The floor of the cavern was a charnel house, sloppily carpeted with chunks of flesh, fat, hair, and skin. Clothes and personal effects of victims had been strewn about freely in the bloody mess, discarded. Flies buzzed everywhere, a writhing black mass bathing in the dead.
In the centre of the gore stood a great hulking mess of brass and bone. It had the vague shape of a man, but it was covered all over in blocks of brass plate armor. Its left shoulder terminated in three thick, coiled green limbs, the tentacles it had attacked with.
Now, those writhing tentacles were around Persephone, squeezing down with inexorable strength. With a muffled snap, something gave away inside her, and she let out a weak scream.
Helga’s hammer had caved in the center of the thing’s abdomen, leaving brass plates fractured and broken open. The broken plates revealed whirling steel gears and sparking wires inside the monstrosity, mixed in with putrefied flesh and bone.
Its right arm held a bloody blade, crudely fashioned from the jagged ends of some metal plating. Beneath it, a partially-butchered young native woman lay, with half her left leg split from ankle to hip, meat scraped to the bone.
Ramdas’ magic shot straight through the heart of the thing. Black ichorous oil began to leak, smoking, from the white-hot hole left behind. Moments later, the leaking oil caught fire, spilling out in a puddle of flame at the feet of the creature. The fire cast the cave in a terrible hue, firelight reflecting on the white of bone and the red of glistening organs.
“It’s a mining automaton!” shouted Helga. She charged forward, shield raised. The skeletons, those few that were moving, began to drop from the ceiling. They landed atop Ramdas’ armored back, their feet hitting his barding with the sharp clang of bone on steel. The centaur stallion charged through them, shedding them from his back with a great shake as he leapt forward, both fore-hooves striking the automaton in the chest.
It staggered, and the writhing green tentacles that sprouted from the left shoulder convulsed. Wet crunching sounds rose into the air, and Persephone’s final scream cut off into a terrible, blood-spattering gurgle.
Heather’s mace bloomed into a fierce white fire, the magic springing through her without thinking. Urgency and anger roiled through her heart, pushing the Light out into her father’s mace. I’ve got to keep them off of Ramdas. Got to keep Helga alive. Persephone… oh saints, Persephone… her mind shied from the thought, and fought to reduce the wet, tearing sounds coming from the mass of green tentacles into background noise.
Persephone’s left leg fell away from the tentacles, wrenched free of the socket. Heather tightened her grip on her mace. Just like the horses outside, some cool part of her mind offered up. I can’t save them. I can’t save her. I can’t save anyone. Just avenge them.
Her mace met the first bony skull that dropped into reach, blowing it apart as silver met bone, and she braced herself to swing again, fighting her way inside.
Helga leapt atop the staggering brass thing, hammering at it madly with her shield and screaming in rage. She made no effort to retrieve her hammer from the floor of the cave, and simply slammed the rim of her shield, again and again, into the face and eyes of the automaton. The battering began deforming brass, then shattering glass, and crushing bone underneath.
Ramdas shied back as the thing swung its crude blade around, and the centaur met it with a neat riposte of his rapier. A precisely-driven counter-thrust jammed the tip of his rapier into the elbow joint of the automaton, fouling it. His hind legs kicked, fast as pistons, shattering the ribcage of one skeleton attacking his flank, and blowing apart the pelvis of another.
That automaton-thing will keep going until it can’t, thought Heather, as the brass face of the automaton caved in. It continued to fight, ignoring the damage and Helga, as its left ‘arm’ began methodically ripping apart what was left of Persephone, limb by limb. Its jammed right arm tried another clumsy swing of its blade at Ramdas, which he deflected off his rapier.
The centaur found an opening as Helga fell off the automaton, and followed up with a flurry of fore-leg kicks on the automaton’s chest. His hooves rang off of brass without much effect. It showed no signs of pain, no signs of even slowing despite the damage.
Sparks flew off of Heather’s mace and shield with every motion, fragments of her heart’s anguish looking for a target. Eight more skeletons. There’s more half-flensed overhead, but they’re lifeless, just hanging from the ceiling. They aren’t enchanted yet, or they’d already be fighting.
Heather’s shield met a clawing hand, and broke it at the wrist with the force of her slap. She shattered the teeth of the skeleton with the edge of her shield, and her right arm followed up with the mace. Her father’s weapon met the crown of the top of the skeleton’s head, and shattered it down to the fourth vertebrae of the neck. Jagged bone flecks bounced off her face, and opened a small cut below her left eye.
She followed through on the swing, and light exploded from the tip of her mace as it shattered the rest of the skeleton’s torso. Her pulsing headache was growing, warning her of how hard she was stoking her fury.
Ramdas was being swarmed by skeletons, bony hands scrabbling uselessly against barding, seeking anywhere soft to dig their hands into. In response, Heather let out a wordless roar and launched herself in one great, standing leap, planting her heels atop the centaur’s barded back. Ramdas spared her one heartbeat’s glance of surprise, just in time to see her swing her mace in a wide, clearing arc around his haunches.
Her attack drove the mace clean through both elbow joints of a skeleton by sheer brute force. A second, looping swing blasted two more skeletons off of the centaur’s haunches, giving Ramdas space to maneuver again. Heather towered atop Ramdas’s back, her hair smoking from the tips as she reached for the power of her anger and cast it through her weapon. The light and heat her mace gave off was intense, toasting the top of her leather gauntlet.
Aysha wouldn’t let one more comrade fall. Saints, guide my arm!
The stallion evaded a clumsy swing of the automaton’s blade, and danced back a step… and bless his heart, he doesn’t ask questions in a pinch. The centaur bucked underneath her, and she bent her knees, and leapt at the height of his bucking jump. The buck propelled her, giving her leap an extra six feet of height, clearance enough to pour everything she had into the mace in her hand.
Saint Aysha, thrice blessed, help me cleanse this place and save the lives I can.
Her mace flared bright as magnesium fire, the white so hot and bright, the reflected glare off the bone of the skeletons below was enough to hurt her eyes. She descended like a meteor, her mace burning with the Saint’s own fire before it slammed into stone.
The air rippled with pure white fire, expanding around her at ferocious speed. Around her, the blast blew bone apart, scattering it in all directions. It threw Helga free of the brass man, sent Ramdas staggering and splaying on all four legs. The flash blinded Heather, searing her lips and eyelids and leaving them hot and tight, dry as bacon.
Too much. Can’t see. Doesn’t matter. Skeletons are down.
“Hit in the chest!” Heather shouted, staggering blindly to her feet. She tripped over a bone, and fell to her hands and knees once more into the gore underfoot.
“Just hit it in the chest!” she screamed again. Power source is there. Spring. Magic. Whatever. It’s the most armored spot.
“I can’t see!” roared Ramdas in return, his hands up around his face, protecting his head, legs fighting to get back underneath the barrel of his body and get him out of range of the automaton.
Helga rose to her feet, and her hand closed around her hammer.
Her hammer scraped stone as Helga lifted it, and the dwarf’s roar of rage came out half as loud as the ensuing crash of hammer on brass. She hammered the automaton in the chest three times, and the third swing broke the plating wide open, bits and pieces of interior mechanism tinkling as they fell out of the creature.
The automaton let out a sound like grating metal and a whimper. It moved to deflect Helga’s next swing with its tentacles, and what remained of Persephone.
“Oh no you don’t!” bellowed Helga. “You let her go! Right this instant you nasty horror!” She slammed her hammer into the floor of the cave. Magic flared from her hammer, flows of Earth pure and powerful, and the stone under her hammer fractured and cleaved. The stone underneath the automaton popped up violently, launching it up so fast the shattered remains of its head hit the ceiling of the cave.
Heather heard stone crack, and the chatter of bits of rock and brass hitting the floor. Helga didn’t wait for the automaton to finish falling back down. Her hammer was already in motion, and she pivoted powerfully, her follow-up backswing catching it a meter from the floor. Like a cannonball, the armored abomination rocketed off of her hammer, straight into the wall of the cave.
I can’t see much, Heather thought. But I can feel those flows, every tug and twist around Helga’s hammer. Time to stay well out of her way. She did, scrabbling backwards on the wet gore of the cave floor.
“I said let her go!” roared Helga. “You wee nasty, you can understand me, right? Your master made you so you can talk? No?” Her hammer hit brass again.
Heather heard the remaining metal arm of the automaton go bouncing across the floor, knocked free by another blow of the enraged dwarf.
“You’ve got bone in you. Where’s your tongue? I’ll rip it out of your coggy skull if you don’t let – her – go!” Her hammer slammed into the shoulder where tentacles met metal, and the battered tentacles thrashed, hurling pieces of Persephone around the cave. Mercilessly, Helga continued to beat on the thing, feeding all her rage into each crushing swing of her hammer and its runes.
By the eighteenth swing of the hammer, the thing had stopped moving. Helga had descended into torn, howling sounds of grief. She beat the thing for a few more swings, crying out like a mantra: “Let her go! Let – her – go! Let her go you nasty filth!”
“Stop,” croaked Heather. “Helga, stop. It’s dead.”
“Si, Caballero,” came Ramdas’ voice. “Stop.”
Helga sunk to her knees in the gore of the cave, her chest heaving. Tears coursed tracks through rock-dust that had plastered itself to her skin.
And then, but for the screaming of the dying horses, all was still.
Heather tucked her knees in under her chin. She hugged her arms around her legs, fingers lacing, with her father’s mace now tucked into her lap. She still couldn’t see clearly, the white-blue afterburn of her magic’s flash filling her vision.
Heather cupped her hands around her eyes, and poured her worry through them. Saint Aysha, the light is too bright, its glory too great and too pure. Help me, for I cannot see. Saint Aysha, thrice denied, three times now I ask. Help me, for I cannot see. Saint Aysha, for the good of the faithful, guide my hands. Help me, for I cannot see.
The litany wrote itself through her mind, her lips whispering the words as she delicately felt into the tissues of her eyes with probing flows. Lens of the eye first. It’s going to go cloudy if I leave it this way. Careful, easy, slow. We’re in no danger. Take your time, now. There’s no hospital to look after your eyes here, so you have to do it right the first time.
Ramdas groaned as he fought his way to his feet, his hooves clopping on the rough stone of the cavern floor as he took a few hesitant steps towards Helga. The horses outside were still screaming, as their blast-mangled limbs bled out.
Heather’s eyes felt warm, and she conjured cool water around them to wash them clean and soothe the itch. Keep the eyes cool. They don’t work like the rest of the body. That’s good enough for the lens for now. I’ll have to put more work in later. Next is my retinas. Slow. They’re bleached. Earth, pull the salts out gently, reset them. Water, fire, just a little of each. Careful now. Okay. Eyelids. They’re burned. So’s my face. Take my time. Trust in my team to keep me safe. Repair. Saint Aysha, watch over us.
Ramdas was doing much the same. Heather could feel the throb through her feet and shins sympathetically, as Ramdas set to rudimentary mending of his shrapnel cuts. Heather frowned. Lieutenant Pramath doesn’t know much about healing. He’d have been discouraged from it, if they were lashing his back so often. I’ll have to see to him, later, so he’s fit to get back to town.
Helga was sobbing, somewhere past Heather’s hands and blinded eyes. Helga’s cries were throaty screaming sobs, hysterical words bubbling out of her mouth: “I cannae find all her pieces! I cannae find all her pieces!”
The smell of death kept creeping up Heather’s nostrils, bringing with it the stink of blood, fresh and old. The stench of guts and viscera and gore followed, all too familiar to her. She drew off her helm and set it between her knees, and drew slow breaths through clenched teeth. She’d been too close to that smell, before.
No, don’t tremble. Don’t let it come. This isn’t a dream. Everyone still alive is safe for right now. Just because you’re in the dark, blind, and it smells of blood… don’t think of them– don’t th– don’t… don’t…
The memory and feeling rose through her like something tectonic. It started at the base of her spine, shaking her like an earthquake. Blackness around her, her senses overwhelmed by screaming comrades, screaming horses, and the smell. Her gorge rose, and she retched, dry and empty, between her knees.
“Anthony…” she moaned helplessly. The black was grabbing her, the smell was crawling into her, and someone was screaming, far away. The scream went on and on, a sobbing and hitching thing, high-pitched and hysterical, a drawn-out animal sound of terror and grief.
In her imagination, every bit of stinking gore around her was her family. Pieces of her husband, parts of her son. They did it again. They did it again and again and again and they will never stop.
Heather clutched herself, rocking slowly, voice torn between retching and screaming. Over the ocean of terror and grief roiling in her, thoughts bubbled up. Move. I can’t. Get up. I can’t! If I can’t even stop screaming, I can’t move. I’m not going to get better. This isn’t going to end. I’m going to scream forever. I don’t know how to stop anymore.
I want to die! I want to die, I want to be with my son and my husband I want to be dead with them I want to die I want to –
Her head snapped up at his tone, weighted and patient. Her throat hurt, clicking dry and pained as she swallowed.
I was screaming that aloud, just then.
She blinked a few more times, and found she could make out the entrance of the cave again. Her eyes stung like sand had blown into them, but she could see vague blurs. Ramdas was an indistinct blob of gray, just an arm’s reach away.
“There’s work yet to do, Blackthorne.”
Somehow it was the right thing to say.
Gratitude washed through her. I’ve still got a job to do. And I can still do it. Push it all down. Push it all away. Do the job. Cry later, Heather thought.
She rose on shaky legs. “Can’t see well yet, Lieutenant,” she said. “Won’t be much use in here.”
“That’s fine. Go out and kill the horses. They deserve some mercy.”
Heather nodded numbly. The mounts weren’t going to heal properly. Even if she spent the next few days mending their legs, they’d likely die a slow death of lameness, or shock. They wouldn’t run again.
Sorry Njorn, she thought.
Outside was better. Even with the gore and dust and smoke and screaming of the horses, it was better than inside. She cupped her hands over her eyes for a few minutes longer, until she was satisfied she could see well enough to carry out her duty. Heather walked from horse to horse, on unsteady legs, and apologetically drove her mace through the skull and into the brain of each one. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she sat next to her dead mount.
Heather laid her cheek down against the neck of her dead horse, and wept. You frisked a lot, but you rode well. You deserved better than to die this way, in fear and in pain. Like my husband and son did.
Heather sat and cried for a few minutes, letting her tears carry her magic across her burning eyes. When her eyes were somewhere near recovered, the world looked foggy, and her eyelids felt too tight. The craters alongside the path had stopped smoking.
They were making more skeletons, here. And they set a trap in case we found it.
I can’t put the cave off any longer, she conceded.
She rose to her feet, and walked back on unsteady legs towards the cave. She found Ramdas and Helga methodically picking through the mess and gore, finding parts of Persephone’s corpse and putting them together.
“Help,” Ramdas said, and so she did.
It was a horror so complete and unlikely that she numbed to the task. Her mind retreated into cool analytical thoughts, floating atop a sea of emotion far below. I’m plucking Persephone’s left eye out of the mouth of this skeleton. How did it even get in there? This hand belongs to that little girl over there, the one without any flesh left on her legs. Persephone’s spear arm is snagged on that crook of rock up on the ceiling. How hard do you have to throw a limb to get it to stick like that?
It was a grim, numbing task, and the frequent retching from both centaur and dwarf didn’t help her gorge. Every so often someone would run outside, gulp breaths of air, scan the horizon for any undead, and come back in. They piled the dead together, then laid them out.
Thirty three dead. Twenty-two of them fresh. All native. Heather nudged a mace-smashed skull with her toe, and crouched down to inspect the rune markings. Well, hello.
The markings on the skull were different, chiselled in place by a metal tool, instead of neatly burned in by magic. The markings were angular, precise, methodical. They lacked the artistry to the runes that had animated the corpse. Pure function, devoid of any personality. This isn’t the same hand. This looks more like a schematic than a rune.
On a hunch, Heather snagged another smashed skull, and sifted through the pieces until the fourth piece of bone she found matched about the same as the first. Exactly the same. Even a disciplined necromancer doesn’t write his signature exactly the same way, every time. They line up perfectly. It’s a perfect copy.
Helga looked up from her messy assemblage of her lover’s body, tears running down her cheeks, and held a hand out silently for the next part of Persephone. Heather rose, plucked the arm from the crag in the rock of the wall of the cavern, and passed it to Helga.
I’d have done the same for Steven and Anthony, if they’d have let me, Heather realized. It’s awful to do, but it’s more awful to think of them as meat, instead of a person. Put them back together, they’re a person again, right?
Ramdas gestured to the smashed automaton. “Blackthorne. There’s nothing more to do now for the Lieutenant but wait and hope. Examine that accursed thing, please.”
Heather’s mouth opened, about to ask for what? But her eyes answered the question for her: Persephone’s head is back on.
The jagged seam of flesh that encircled her neck was an angry red, but it was a seam, no longer a tear. It wasn’t quite fast enough to follow with the eye, but if she looked away for a few seconds then looked back, the subtle differences showed. The flesh at the ragged edges of each wound was transitioning from red to a ruddy pink. Her wounds were closing, her parts slowly growing back together.
Helga watched the process with intense scrutiny, scowling like a foreman at work too slow for her liking. Ramdas watched, his face one of mute astonishment. He knew about this, but he’s never seen it before. Helga’s seen it before, for sure.
“Is she immortal?” asked Heather in an awed whisper.
Ramdas turned to scowl. “That’s classif–,”
Helga cut him off. “Enough secrets! Court martial me later, Lieutenant, but Blackthorne needs to know.”
Ramdas rubbed his nose, and then relented. “Si. Enough secrets.”
Helga swallowed, and looked back to Heather. “We don’t think she’s immortal. She mends. She ages, she gets ill, but from wounds she mends. But she’s never died before. I don’t…” the dwarf bit her lip, her expression caught between grief and grim uncertainty. “… I don’t know, dearie, if she’ll recover.”
“Believe in her, Stengrav,” said Ramdas.
Heather ducked her head. Lieutenant’s right. Nothing for it but to wait and hope, then.She tore her eyes away from the spectacle unfolding, and turned her attention to the hulk of shattered brass on the floor of the cave.
Nothing about the amalgamation of monster and metal and bone was right. Heather knew the runes that made golems, and those that powered mining automatons. Given a week of time and the funds for pre-runed parts, she might have put together an ordinary one. But the runes on this one had been visibly altered, adjusted and changed in places, fresh work overlaid on old. She squinted close in the dim light of the cave to make them out.
This was done by hand. Not by our necromancer, either. Different hand. Jagged lines, wild. ‘Eccentric’ would be generous. This is the work of a madman.
The runes led to wires, and the wires led to bones and monstrous flesh alike. The bones held familiar runes, fire-carved with fine, elegant lines. The same hand that had been responsible for Saint-Cielle. Undead bones, bolted into a mining automaton.
Her eyes traced wires and runes through the left shoulder, to the point where they met bolted-on flesh. Blood, dried and ichorous, was spattered on the brass. This was put on fresh. Dead tissue doesn’t bleed. And the runes around that join, it’s that same precise hand. Too precise for a person. Every line is perfect, without the slightest bit of variation.
She sat back on her heels, doing her best to ignore the sticky mess of gore that surrounded her. Persephone growing back together was astonishment enough for one day. But it wasn’t entirely unheard of, rumours of magical healers who self-imbued their own healing magic persisted. Regenerators were rare, but there were rarer magic talents in the world. Magic that could induce regeneration was a known art, to the right medi-magical colleges.
But this thing in front of her was worse than astonishing. It was unprecedented.
This thing isn’t just necromancy anymore. It’s been reprogrammed. Or it was thinking for itself, like Friar Tomlin. It was butchering these people. Raising them from the dead itself. Exactly the same runes on each skull, copied perfectly from body to body. But it wasn’t just going off of programming, was it?
She rose, and stalked deeper into the cavern, pausing to light a small lantern from her pouch. A piece of out-of-place brass gleamed near the back of the cave, and she stalked that way. There, an undamaged brass arm lay amidst the tangled wreckage of dead, green tentacles. You can’t just drag bodies into a cave and not expect some horror or predator to follow the scent. Smell of fresh meat brought company, didn’t it?
Heather kicked at the massive lump of tentacles. They didn’t so much as quiver. The surprisingly dense flesh of the monster reeked with an earthy, putrid scent. And so in slithers this ugly customer. Too fresh to rot yet, but it already smells like this. Lovely.
She glanced back towards the ruined automaton. So our green friend here shows up, and you saw a chance to upgrade. More efficient for you to rip the bodies apart and then strip the flesh, instead of trying to butcher them all together. Not in your programming, but nice and efficient. You thought of this all on your own, I’ll bet.
Heather shuddered. No study I’ve ever read, no treatise, no book, no training, absolutely nothing has talked about anything like this before. Necromancy, automatons, and now monster parts grafted on. I don’t have any training for this.
I don’t think anybody does.