Persephone’s gasp brought Heather out of her reverie.
Helga threw her arms around Persephone, and the dwarf began to bawl in relief. Motes of blue light flew from Helga as she squeezed Persephone tightly, crying into her bosom.
Ramdas murmured a brief prayer: “Santos, we give thanks to the Divine, that our comrade returns. Convey our thanks for this blessing.” He laid a saddle blanket atop Persephone to preserve her modesty and warmth.
Persephone coughed, and her eyelids fluttered open. Her eyes were dazed, looking around in unfocused confusion. She weakly tugged the blanket across her body, covering herself a little more. Then her attention turned to the bawling dwarf atop her, her eyes incuriously studying the top of her head.
Heather swallowed, as her eyes searched Persephone’s passively curious face. This time, I don’t think it’s a facade, she thought. I don’t think she knows where she is, or what’s going on. And all that blood lost. She’s got mind enough to cover herself, at least.
Ramdas gave Heather a look. She nodded curtly, strode up to Helga, and took the dwarf gently by the shoulders.
“Stengrav. Come on. Let’s get her up on the Lieutenant’s back. We can’t carry her home with the ponies dead,” Heather said.
Helga gave Persephone a squeeze that was harder than probably intended, and then straightened up, and wiped at her cheeks. “Give me a moment please, dearie?” she said. “I just need myself a moment.”
“Take your time, but not too much,” said Ramdas. “We’re still expecting those skeletons we saw down on the plateau.”
Helga nodded, and bent back down to cup her cheek to Persephone’s. Helga whispered something, and brushed a kiss on Persephone’s cheek. She took a few long, hitching breaths that threatened to break into more sobs. Then she touched her forehead to the injured woman’s for a few seconds, and rose back to her feet.
“Okay,” she said. The dwarf squared her shoulders back, and her head rose up to meet Heather’s gaze. Her eyes were hard, and her body steady, as solid as they’d been before Persephone fell. She indicated the mess of gore splayed about throughout the cave. “Thank you for helping search through this for her, Blackthorne. I know it was hard for you.”
Heather abruptly teared up, and looked away. “You’re welcome,” is all she could say.
You nearly lose your loved one, and you’re worried about me? Heather thought. Had it come from someone else, Heather would have suspected pity was fuelling the words. But coming from Helga?
Heather gathered the lump of emotion welling up in her throat, and used it to conjure some water to wash her face free of the blood and dust.
The dwarf’s gauntlet swept out towards the cave entrance, and the cratered wall behind them.
“You saved our lives, dearie. They hit us with mining explosives?” Helga asked.
“Yeah. I saw the wire,” Heather said.
The centaur’s head came up again. “That wasn’t magic?”
Helga looked Ramdas’s way. “You couldn’t tell, Lieutenant?”
Asperity dripped from the centaur’s voice. “Not all of us were born with a pick-axe in hand, caballero. I would not know an explosive from a spell.”
Heather turned to Ramdas. “Sorry about giving you that smack back there, Lieutenant. I needed to get everyone clear.”
Ramdas inclined his head. “Under the circumstances, Blackthorne, forgiven. Closer, it would have been worse for us all, non?” He bent down, and delicately swaddled and lifted Persephone into his arms. There was concern writ large upon Ramdas’ face as he lifted her, and Helga moved in quickly to help. He twisted slowly at the midsection of his torso, to lay her upon his back. Helga and Heather began to secure her with girth straps from the dead ponies saddles.
Persephone’s eyes were dull, her expression slack and passive. She didn’t react to being lifted or moved, nor did she seem to be following any of the conversation around her. Heather looked on silently, hoping Helga couldn’t see what she and Ramdas did.
She just won’t be the same, after this.
It was a hard afternoon. Persephone was too weak and disoriented to support herself, and didn’t respond to verbal requests or commands, so it took the better half of an hour for Heather and Helga to safely secure her.
The sun overhead was unrelenting, and the flies merciless, swarming in clouds. They’d been drawn by the stink of gore and death, and flowed into and out of the cave as thick as smoke. The lines on Persephone’s skin remained angry and red, revealing how she’d been torn apart. It gave her skin a tattered and puzzle-like appearance. She had yet to say a word or even make a coherent sound.
“Lieutenant, I’m going to need your help pulling the ponies into the cave,” said Heather, as they finished strapping Persephone in.
“Ah? Si, that would be too much to drag in on your own. Yes, I will help. Good thinking. We intend to collapse the cave, si?”
Helga gave her hammer a thump on the ground. “Yes sir. Same as Saint-Cielle. Deny the bastards any spoils.”
Heather grabbed a rope and her saddlebags from Njorn’s body. “Stengrav, watch our backs for those skeletons we saw, while we haul in the horses.”
“Aye, dearie. I’m in the mood to keep swinging today.”
“Pick your fights with care, Caballero,” said Ramdas. “We’ve suffered enough this week. Engage at a distance if you can.”
Helga gave the centaur a grim nod. “That’s the plan, sir,” she said as she hefted her hammer. “You two get to it. I’ll keep you safe.”
She said it with such assurance that Heather had to look away. Her eyes fell on the dead horses. I thought I could keep people safe too, Helga. I can’t even keep a horse safe. Not my husband, or my child. Not even a pony.
Heather slung the rope around the pony’s forelegs, and Ramdas took up the hard pulling work, dragging the dead pony into the cave. Gore squelched under his hooves and under Heather’s boots as they added to the cave’s stock of dead flesh.
Mid-way through dragging Njorn’s carcass in after her sibling, there came a loud clatter and the distinctive sound of Helga’s hammer hitting stone. Helga raised a hammerless hand from her sentry point.
“One down. Other’s still a kilometer away,” she called. Bone parts were still falling from the air fifty yards down the trail, a chattering skull cracking open on rock and falling silent.
She hit that one hard enough to blow it apart completely, Heather thought. I’d smile at the thought if things had gone right, in here.
“Was the corpse it was dragging a native?” Heather called back.
“Aye, looks like.”
“Saints damn it,” Heather muttered. “So they’re hunting the locals, too. Any bodies they can find.”
Ramdas grunted acknowledgement, and then called out to Helga: “Get your hammer, then bring the corpses up.”
A minute later, Helga returned, puffing under the weight of her armor and the body. The body the skeleton had been dragging held no surprises, under Heather’s quick investigation. Died from skeleton-inflicted wounds, finger bones clawing into the neck and soft tissues. Fresh kill. No more than four hours old. Still warm around the armpits. Dead of shock, from trauma.
The skeleton itself had the smooth, artful runes inscribed on the inside of the skull, identical to those that had ambushed them on the way to Cielle. Heather held up the skull so Ramdas and Helga could see the runes.
“Same guy,” Heather said.
“Same guy,” agreed Helga.
“This hunter put up a fight,” pointed out Ramdas, as he gestured to the ribcage of the skeleton Helga had gathered up. It had an arrow neatly lodged in its spine, the shaft resting in the gaps between some ribs.
“Didn’t do him much good,” agreed Heather. “But he put up a fight. Knife wounds to the bones here, and a scorch-mark here,” she said, touching another rib. “Shame he didn’t think to try a big rock. Probably would have done more damage. That means he got run down and didn’t have time to make a plan. Hunter’s body has salt and sweat residue in his hair. He died running.”
Ramdas pointed down the slope. “That second skeleton is coming. Let’s add him to the cave,” he said. “I want to get Matthewson back to the church as soon as possible.”
Persephone’s eyes were closed, and her breathing shallow and slow. The loss of blood and the cost of healing had been high, judging by the sallow grayish-yellow that was creeping into her skin tone.
Her organs are probably failing under the load. She’s going to need a lot more work before she recovers. If she recovers, Heather thought.
“We could go now,” said Heather. “But I don’t want any more clever surprises. I’d rather our necromancer bastards have to learn about us beating them here the hard way. Let’s take down the last skeleton, and bury these souls with some dignity.”
“Si,” Ramdas said. “We cannot afford any more attrition, but with what we’ve lost, I care to inflict some of our own upon them.”
They went back to their positions, Helga staring like a hawk down on the distant, approaching skeleton.
It took five more minutes for Heather and Ramdas to drag Njorn’s body the rest of the way into the cave, and lay her out alongside the other horse.
“Poor beasts,” Ramdas said. “Beasts and men alike, and even monsters. Are they all so repugnant, Blackthorne? These men who study necromancy?”
Heather spat. “Every last one of them, sir. Lazy. It’s a lazy trade, for cowards. Enslaving the dead who can’t defend themselves, who can’t resist. If they were honest about their laziness, they’d become artificers, and toil to make automatons. But now they’re co-opting that, too,” she said, gesturing to the blended heap of monster, metal, and bone that lay in oil-charred wreckage in the back of the cave.
“Why do they not simply make automatons, if they wished such minions?” asked Ramdas.
Heather pointed to the bodies. “Lazy. Ever played with a marionette, as a child?”
“Ah? Si, it is a common enough art in Venicia. They put shows on the street.”
“Sure. Even if it takes a few years to get graceful and convincing with the motions of a marionette, a child can still pick one up and move them, right? At least enough to look like something alive. A marionette in the shape of a person is a lot easier to understand how to move. Automatons, though, you have to craft them. With them you’re not really making a man out of a machine. You’re tricking a machine into moving like a man. And that takes years and years of engineering study.”
Ramdas frowned thoughtfully. “So they raise the dead, because they’re easy to understand and control in movement? This is why we bury the horses too?”
“Yes, sir. They know how humans move, and there’s a good chance they’re familiar enough with horses to figure it out. You don’t usually see a lot of animal skeletons raised. Different anatomy, different patterns of motion,” said Heather. “But I’m not putting anything past this bastard.”
She threw the ribcage of the downed skeleton into the cave, and continued her explanation. “As for people? Necromancer doesn’t have to think hard about it. Runes that approximate a basic nervous system for motion aren’t that hard. Some simple movement routines, self-correcting feedback cycles, and they can get a skeleton up and moving like it’s human again pretty fast. Sensory runes, sight and hearing, then language processing to pre-enchanted behaviors.”
She gave a skull whose jaw was twitching a hard kick, dashing the bone apart on rock. “They can’t usually change their own enchantment, Lieutenant, but I think that’s how that thing in the back got the tentacles. It altered its own runes. That’s another thing I’ve never seen or heard of undead or automatons doing before.”
“We’re all in over our heads, Caballero. But you’re the only one who can read these works they have wrought, and tell us their meaning. Don’t despair.”
The sound of a hammer striking bone forestalled further talk. This time the sound was different, a muffled crash compared to the prior impact.
“Oi!” shouted Helga. “Second one’s down. You’re going to want to see this one, Blackthorne!”
Heather and Ramdas jogged out of the cave and over to Helga’s side. “That one’s bleeding out of its broken bones,” said Helga, pointing to the ruined skeleton. The immobile lump of another native hunter’s corpse lay on the ground beside it.
Heather crouched down to inspect it. The pelvis had been shattered, and sure enough, fresh red blood was spilling from the broken pieces, oozing from marrow out onto the stone underfoot.
“Fresh bones!” said Heather. “Marrow hasn’t dried yet. Did you hit the skull?”
“Aye, dearie. Clean shot, right on the jaw. Knocked the wee nasty right into the rocks, that’s when the rest of it broke there. Skull top came off clean. It’s shaped like a cog.” Helga pointed to a plate of stone on the ground. It had interlocked, square teeth cut into its perimeter.
Heather scanned the horizon and ground around the mountain. Nothing else moving but hares and mice. No moving bones in sight. She stepped down off the rock and approached the bone plate cautiously, and then bent down and picked it up.
“Huh. They cut bone here,” said Heather, holding up the bone plate towards Ramdas. “Cut it so the whole top of the skull would interlock, but slide out. Like the lid of a puzzle box. All the runes, the whole package, they’re all carved on this piece of bone.”
She held the bone up to the sun to check the glistening, wet surface, and inspecting the marks she found within. “They scooped out the brains, and chiselled in the runes with some metal. Automaton that did this one. Identical runes again. Looks like a basic undead package. Movement, aggression, targeting and sensory, spatial orientation and landmarking. No language processing. This one was a straight-up hunter killer. Murder whatever people it found, and bring the corpses back here for processing. That’s all it was for.”
“I’d ask, dearie, since when can an automaton make magic, but…” Helga’s sweeping gesture indicated the entire situation around them.
“Si,” agreed Ramdas. “The world is full of uncomfortable surprises lately.”
Heather grunted, and tossed the skull-top into the cave with a clatter. “Ain’t that so.”
When all the skeletons and corpses alike had been dragged into the gruesome cave, they burned the last of the silver and salt they had between them. They watched from the mouth of the cavern as the white, purifying flame burned through corpses again. All three knights shared expressions of disgust, grief, and fury.
“Bring it down, Caballero,” said Ramdas.
“With pleasure, dearie.”
Helga’s hammer hummed as the dwarf marched toward the mouth of the cavern. Heather could feel the tug of the Earth flows, the way the dwarf threw them around the cave as if it was a foe’s throat to be throttled.
Emotion fuels magic. And Helga’s got fuel aplenty today. We all do. Heather found herself gripping her father’s mace handle. Days like this I wish this was a hammer, too. So I could help end this place, bury this horror, just smash it all to bits. The thoughts left her mace-head smoldering a dull orange, as she fed her frustration into the silver-plated steel.
Ramdas bristled with anger as he stared into the cave. None of them flinched as Helga’s hammer swung, and connected to the side of the mouth of the cavern.
Magic flows drew tight, and the stone of the cavern gave way like a walnut crushed beneath a boot. Then there came a loud boom that travelled up the soles of Heather’s boots, crushing and pulping every corpse inside.
Hardly any dust from the cave-in, Heather thought. Helga collapsed the mouth of the cave first.
“Just try and make use of that mess, you wee bastards,” snarled Helga.
Helga stepped back, dusting off with both hands, and left her hammer lying on the ground. She rounded on Heather and Ramdas both, hands quivering, arms ramrod-straight at her sides.
“Tell me it was worth it!” she shouted. “Going in there, fighting that thing, and almost losing Persephone? Tell me it was worth that cost in blood, you two!”
Helga’s shout was somewhere between fury and grief, equal parts accusing and plaintive. Seeing Helga angry with them stung Heather more than a slap could have. It’s a fair question. All we’ve been doing is walking into ambushes and traps since this began.
Heather stepped forward, and wrapped her hands around the dwarf’s wrists. Eye-to-eye, inches away, the tears streaming down Helga’s face cut rivulets in the lingering dust caked on by sweat and grief.
“It was,” Heather whispered, tears spilling down her cheeks. “I’m- I’m not sure how much yet. But it was. Every one of those bodies would have been out murdering more people within hours. Get your hammer, Helga. I’ll tell you what I figured out while we walk.”
When Helga had regained her composure and her hammer, they turned down the slope of the mountain, none of them wanting to look back.
As they walked, Heather briefed them on what she’d observed, and explained her suspicions. “Someone, a few someones, worked together to integrate something undead with that mining automaton. The handiwork that raised the dead isn’t the same handiwork that integrated the corpse with the automaton. And then that thing came out here with some skeletons and started butchering people, to make more skeletons.”
Heather gestured towards Persephone as she continued. “At some point a monster caught the smell of all that blood and meat and investigated. The automaton killed it, butchered it, and improved itself by integrating the monster part into its body. That’s how it got those tentacles for an arm. So that’s about three impossible things rolled into one, so far today. I believe that thing was thinking for itself.”
Persephone slept through the conversation, her skin pale, lips blue, breathing ragged and soft. Ramdas was silent, focused on absorbing Heather’s words.
Helga was incredulous: “You’re talking about an automaton Turning, but with necromancy, and then… thinking for itself? Slapping on monster parts like a new glove? Dearie, that’s some wild talk. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“It’s the best explanation I’ve got. Think about it. Friar Tomlin wasn’t just speaking a pre-made message. He was conversing, and casting magic of his own,” said Heather. “I think Friar Tomlin was thinking for himself somehow. Even though he was dead. He had his memories, and he conversed with the Major. And then there was that missing neckbone.
“And that creature in the cave wasn’t just an automaton. It had bones in it, too, with the usual runes you’d expect for raising a skeleton. So maybe it wasn’t the automaton doing the thinking for itself. Maybe it was the bones inside it. Worse yet, it integrated that monster part and used it. The monster hadn’t been dead longer than a day, probably less. So in the span of, at most, twelve hours, this thing figured out how to use a monster part as its own limb, and effectively enough for combat.”
Out loud, it sounded far-fetched, and the confidence in Heather’s voice began to ebb.
Helga began to look skeptical, but Ramdas spoke up. “It all stands to reason. I believe you, Caballero. Go on.”
Heather kicked a rock from her path. “I think the reason it didn’t say anything to us was because it doesn’t have any way to. They don’t build a way for mining automatons to talk, do they? Why would they? They wouldn’t expect them to have anything to say, they’re just bits of magic and gears.”
Helga spat in the dirt. “Aye, I follow you, but that’s still sounding like wild speculation, dearie.”
“It’s the best I’ve got to go on right now, Helga. The runes used on the skeletons are perfect copies, every angle and line the same. Like a blacksmith’s stamp. But you can’t stamp bone. It was scratched in, precise and neat as can be, exactly the same every time. Human hands can’t do that, not that perfectly. If you’ve got another way to explain that, I’m all ears.”
Helga thought about it, and then frowned and shook her head. “Ye’ve got me stumped, dearie. Whole thing has me stumped.”
Ramdas spoke up. “Let us say you are correct, Heather. How many talents would be required? How many people?”
Heather grimaced. “You’d need a Necromancer. Then an expert on automatons. Our Necromancer’s got the fine fire-burned runes on bone. There’s a second person who has the jagged writing, he lays down runework on the automatons, and he writes like a madman. And the Automaton’s copying perfect copies of someone’s else’s runes, so there could be a third person or just a pre-set design. Call it two people for sure, maybe three or four, and –” she paused, and dismay filled her face.
“And what?” asked Ramdas.
“Lieutenant, how many folks have to be on your side for you to smuggle a mining automaton out of the imperial adamant mines? All without calling down the whole place on your head?”
Ramdas and Helga shared a grimace. “Saints preserve us,” murmured the centaur.
“Exactly. Too many. So our worst case scenario now is they’ve already got control of the fortress, and every soldier in there is dead and compromised, skeletonized, and weaponized.”
Heather shook her head. “The best case scenario is a smaller group smuggled that clanking bastard out, and the rest of the fortress figured out something is up. And so they’ve buttoned up the fort to catch whoever’s responsible. Any takers on the best case bet?”
There were none, not at this point. It shouldn’t have been possible to look any more grim, but they all managed, contemplating an imperial fortress filled with nothing but undead.
Ramdas started back down the path, and frowned. “I’ll have to disclose some of this to houses Oiselle and Goldbrace. Stengrav? You’ll stay with Matthewson in the infirmary until her condition changes. Blackthorne, I need your report in full, in writing. Facts and suspicions separate, but present both, please. Then I need your eyes and ears out and about. If we’re to find our way through this mess, it won’t be gazing at our navels.”
Helga and Heather both nodded. With the clouds of blackflies swarming around them, they were all happy to keep their mouths shut for the rest of the hard trip home.