Chapter 12 - A Tale of Bones
The next morning Art awoke bright and early, groaning from the discomfiting sleep. "Really, Selena, did you have to roll over onto me?" he muttered at her still sleeping form. "It's cramped enough to be sharing the bed with five other people, even if it's a really big bed." He turned, saw Warriv yawning and stretching himself awake. "Warriv," he whispered, "I'm going out for a stroll. See you in a bit, but don't wait if it takes me some time to get back." -- Warriv simply waved him off.
Now he opened the door and, with torch-staff in hand and having swiped a sweetroll into his sash, he strode out into the early morning, closing the door behind him. Outside, the sun had yet to rise, even as the sky had lightened to the lavender-blue of the pre-dawn.
He needed a place to practice using his necroturgy. Looking about the village to get his bearings, he headed perpendicular to the still-empty village street, passing several wooden houses, and their personal gardens behind them, as he went. Beyond them lay an expansive stretch of wheat fields, countless stalks golden and swaying upon the light breeze of dawn.
That victory over the most recent group of warriors had been too close for comfort. A single shaman -- a single one! He'd been able to slaughter his way through them even when it'd been six against one, with several dozen warriors defending them and a trio of adepts! -- had given him so much trouble, even when its scimitar-armed minions had fallen. Yet again he cursed the loss of his arm. He'd been weakened so much that he reckoned he had not even a hundredth of his former capability. He'd never be able to wield a sword and shield at the same time, and that meant he needed other ways of defending himself should he run into any enemies again. He couldn't allow a repeat of what happened before.
Past the outskirts of the wheat fields, where civilization ended and the wilderness of the forest began, the trees in all their greenery now loomed all about him. He took in a deep breath, drank in the smell of pine trees about him, and felt at peace. Here none would stumble upon him. Certainly not any of the sisterhood, he hoped. After having suffered so many losses to the shamans and their underlings, he reckoned they wouldn't take too kindly to him picking up where they left off.
He squat down by the trunk of a yew tree, his head just low enough to avoid its low-leaning branches. All about him he could hear soft sounds of squirrels scurrying in the underbushes, fallen leaves trampled underfoot. He reached into his pocket, and cast the bones he'd dug up the previous night in a spread across the earth before him. He closed his eyes, then adjusted his hold over the staff to the proper position, and the feeling of him as the puppet string-puller, that feeling of being able to command dolls to dance to every movement of his fingers, that sense of being at one with the puppet's every movement, of that perfect synchrony with the limbs of a body other than his own, immersed his mind.
He couldn't sense any of the bones in the area. Not even the ones he'd brought out, until he tapped them with the skull of his staff. The moment he did so, he could sense those bones, feel them before him, feel them as he lifted them up barely off the ground with his mind, then set them back down, even as he kept his eyes closed. Deep in the way of the puppeteer, it felt so natural, so right, for him to exert this control over these little bones, these mere puppets of his, like he'd always been doing this. That was just the way of the puppeteer, he knew, but he could feel it as if he'd been doing it for ages, and the ability to lft the bones came so naturally.
Only, his skill with the way hadn't come along with that feeling of knowing what he did. Getting a single goose bone to lift as if lifting his own hand felt right; yet when he opened his eyes to see what he'd accomplished, he saw he had kept putting either too little or too much into the movement, with the result that the bone either shot up into the air or hardly moved at all. And when he finally got it up into the air, just trying to get it to stay aloft in one place had proven a challenge of its own, as the force he'd put into getting it to lift had caused it to tumble around and then either float up too high or collapse back upon the earth.
Despite himself he groaned. Hadn't he managed to lift the incisors without issue? Why did these bones prove such a challenge? What difference did these have compared to the ones he'd managed from earlier? Oh that's right; this bone, long and slender, exhibited completely different physics from the incisors, which, despite having a complex shape of its own, nonetheless took a somewhat round shape. The goose bone on the other hand had its ends far from the bone's center of balance. And he'd been trying to control it from its center of balance. Each time he'd not gotten the balance just right, using the way of the puppeteer to apply too much of a force one way, it had tumbled in the opposite direction.
Ah, he mused; that must be it. He had to focus his control over just the one end of the bone. With a thought he considered what it would be like to hold the bone by one end; and then he was holding it by the one end, holding it in place while the other end dangled below it.
He wondered if an actual puppeteer -- of puppets -- had this much of a problem with getting the proper movement out of his puppets. Surely it must be easier?
It took several tries before he could get the bone to go up the amount he desired and then stay put. He had to control the bone at one end, and then by the other end as well and at the same time, in order for it to lift the way he intended it to -- horizontally. Even more conscious effort to keep it from slipping out of his mind's grasp. By then the sun had gone up, its rays of golden dawnlight streaming across the forest floor. The birds had started to chirp, seemingly unconcerned by his presence. Just when he thought he'd gotten the bone to levitate up properly, when he'd set it down to control another one half the size of the first, that other one moved too much. It then took him some more time to get the hang of just how much he had to move this second one; and then the third piece of bone he raised up, a stubble of a shoulder-bone, had yet another dynamic altogether.
After some time he felt he had stabilized his control over one of the bones: making it hover in place before him without spinning end over end, making it move side to side without allowing his concentration slip, making it move up and down and side to side at the same time, making it make such simple movements while being positioned vertically instead of horizontally, making it move in a circle… These control exercises proved endless.
Just one bone, he thought, staring at it with a mix of awe and frustration. How could just one bone prove such a challenge? He'd started to get hungry. He set aside the staff to withdraw the sweetroll, started eating it. As he savored it he looked about the forest, immersing himself in the panoply of green before him. The sun, well on its way up through the firmament, now cast its rays in a diagonal angle down through the trees.
For a moment he wondered what Warriv, Taril, Selena, and the Bedfords could be up to. Eating, most likely, judging from the height of the sun in the sky. He could go back to join them, but he'd devoured his snack, and he still felt he'd not grasped even the rudiments of necroturgy. No, he thought; he would finish what he'd come out to do.
He grasped his staff again, evoking the way of the puppeteer. He reached out for the bones he'd left upon the forest floor… and felt he couldn't sense them. That would not do, was his first thought; if he wanted to use this way properly, he'd have to know the limits of when he could control these bones. How ironic would be if he spent days learning to raise bone, then got speared through the chest because he'd forgotten he couldn't parry with bones he hadn't any control over?
He touched one with the skull headpiece of his staff, and felt he could sense that one, and only that one, now that he'd touched it with the staff. The matter hadn't been with his grasp of the way itself, since he could sense and animate the one bone he'd touched. No matter how much he strained, however, he couldn't sense the others.
So, the way only worked with bones he'd touched? Since his left hand gripped his staff, he stretched out his right arm to tap one of the bones, felt his connection to those bones restored as well. As if with his very touch served to bind him to these bones. That seemed a good bit more straightforward than what a puppeteer had to do, which involved having to wind some string around each of the limbs of the puppet he wanted to animate. Then he realized that he'd actually touched those other bones with his arm just then, not his staff, which meant that whatever control he needed to establish, he could conduct through mere touch, not through the staff. And he'd touched it with the side of his arm, the skin, not the bruised, bloody, cauterized excuse of his wrist stump, where he could make out his ulna and radius, ending at the stump alongside the rest of his flesh there; and that meant it hadn't required direct touching with bone.
He stepped on some of the other bones with the bottom of his boot. That didn't establish control. Yes, he had on boots, so perhaps that interfered; and yes, he didn't have any gloves on at the moment; but he had been wearing mail gloves during the fight earlier and he'd controlled bone just fine, and that meant the way of the puppeteer didn't work through his feet. After a few more taps against the bone with his other body parts, he concluded that the way only worked through his arms. Then he almost chuckled to himself at the thought of, well, yes, who ever heard of doing puppetry with one's head, shoulders, knees or toes?
And what if he had to cease the way of the puppeteer? He wondered, and subsequently he dropped his staff, letting it roll out of his hand, before picking it up again to restore the way in his mind. He reached out… sensed a fading connection with his bones. He animated one bone, lifted it into the air, and the connection to it restored to what it had been moments earlier. That told him, at the very least, that he could swap into another way if he had to, and then immediately swap back. That made sense, he thought, recalling his most recent battle, where the shaman, after having swapped to hurling fire bolts at him, had reverted back to reanimation and raised the fallen midget to intercept his thrust. It had done it so fast, he recalled; the shaman hadn't a spare moment to re-establish control over the lead lying at its feet just then.
Even as he considered this, he could feel his grasp over the remaining bones slipping, ceasing, and then that feeling of control had gone. When he tried to exert control over them once again, he couldn't lift those bones any more. Some kind of time limit? he thought. On the order of mere seconds. He could shift to another way, but not for long before he had to swap back to this one. Darn, he thought; he couldn't simply go around touching all the bone he came across to establish control over all of them, and expect that control to remaing there for him to use them days or weeks later.
He couldn't very well keep holding on to his staff all the time, he figured, as he started levitating a piece of bone before him. And if he had to re-establish control over them, he'd have to keep those pieces close to him, as well as the staff. It would be somewhat of a dead giveaway of what he could do, and not one that would do much to endear him to the locals, the carvaners, or the sisters. No, they wouldn't like it very much, not given how much Nathan and Penny had worried about the threat of the attackers' necroturgy, for him to be doing this as well. He would have to keep out of sight while he practiced…
Twigs snapped underfoot to his right. He whirled around, his mind already prepared for fight or flight, when he saw Selena standing there in a petite yellow dress and sandals, her hair all nicely combed up and the manacles gone from her wrists. "Oh, it's you," he said, relaxing. "You almost scared the hell out of me."
"How did you do that?" -- "Do what?" -- "The bones!" -- "I don't know what you're talking about." -- "Yeah you do!"
Oh crap, thought Art. He had been practicing necroturgy and she'd seen him do it. What would she think of him? Something like this would be bound to scare a little girl like her shitless--
"Can you teach me? Please?" -- "Ah, nice dress by the way, where'd you get it?" -- "Penny got them from our next door neighbors." -- "Mmm, looks nice on you." -- "Really? You think it's pretty?" she asked, breaking helplessly into a smile. -- "Yes, I do. Suits you very well." -- "Hey don't change the topic!" -- Well, it was worth a try, thought Art. "Erm… also, I see you've got those manacles off. Must have been heavy, weren't they?" -- "I said, don't change the topic!" she looked at him reproachfully. -- "Ah, you got me there," admitted Art. "Look, can you just forget about…" He remembered how the last iteration of that kind of conversation had gotten, with her, and gave up.
"Fine," he said with a sigh. "I'll tell you what I've been up to, okay? I'll let you in on the secret, but it's a big secret. You have to promise that you'll never tell anybody else about what you're seeing. And that includes Warriv, and Taril, and Penny, and Nathan, and anyone else. Okay?" -- An excited nod. "I'll not tell no one." -- "You'll not tell anyone," said Art, looking askance at her. "Don't think you'll fool me with a promise like that." -- "I won't tell, okay?"
"All right," he said, then raised the staff before her. "You know what this is?" -- "It's the staff you had back when you found me." -- "Eh, close enough. It's a staff that allows doing some pretty cool things. You've already seen one of the things it can do." He twirled the staff to hold it crescent side up, evoked the way of the hearth and flame, and conjured a ball of flame within the arms of the crescent, before banishing it with a thought. "On the one hand, fire, symbolizing life, even as it consumes." He twirled it again to hold it skull-side-up, tapped it on a bone, and levitated it before him. "And on the other, reanimation, symbolizing death, even as the bones move as if alive." Before her entranced eyes he set about showing off the various moves he can make with it, making the bone float up and down, side to side and around. "I've been training with it all morning."
"My turn!" she said, reaching out for Art's staff, then pouted as he snatched it away. -- "You're far too young to be doing this yourself. What are you, seven?" -- "Seventeen!" -- "Yeah right, you big liar." -- "See, you admit I'm big!" -- "No, I called you a big… you know what, never mind." -- "It's mine! Mine I said," she said, as she tried again and again to reach out for his staff even as he held it out of her way and then horizontally up in the air so she couldn't reach it even as she started leaping to try to grasp hold of it. Pretty soon she started pounding at his chest.
"Stop hitting me," he said, backing away even as she redoubled her efforts. "Oh, fine, whatever," he said, and relented, lowering down his staff, which she eagerly took. He didn't let go just yet. "But you have to promise to be a good girl and never use it without getting my approval first, understand?" -- Nod. -- He let Selena snatch it away. "Hold it like this," he said, guiding her hand to the right position. "When you're holding it just right you'll feel--" He stopped when he saw her mouth gaping open. "I think you've got it," he said. "Now, you want to tap the top of the staff against one of those bones," he said, pointing her at the pile of bones on the ground. "Then just think about lifting them up the way you'd lift up a puppet."
She did as he'd instructed, but the bone showed only a halfhearted tug upward before collapsing. Again and again Selena tried, without much success, and started groaning in frustration. Art patted her on the back. "That's normal when you're new to it," he said with a chuckle, remembering how he'd struggled to get any movement out of it earlier. "It takes a lot of time and practice to get it to work, see."
He could tell that she'd lost must of her interest now that she'd seen it would take a bit of work to get it to do what he'd been doing with it, and that she'd looked upset. He felt a pang of sadness for her. He took the staff out of her hands, and squatted down. "Here, I've got something to show you." As the feeling of the way washed into his mind, he touched the staff on the bones on the ground, and with a thought set a pair of them, both of them the slender kind of bone and equally long, to stand erect on the ground before moving them about.
Now plopped down on the ground, Selena giggled. "Looks like they're little people walking around." -- "Yeah, they do," Art mused. He then brought the two bones together, both of them standing erect, then had them revolve about each other, at first quite apart, then closer and faster as he started to get the hang of it. -- "Now they're dancing…" When he brought the two bones completely together, "Now they're hugging and kissing!"
Art chuckled. "No they're not." -- "Yes they are!" -- "No they're not. Why would they be hugging and kissing?" -- "I don't know, maybe they were separated for too long and they finally got back together!" -- "Hah, that's one overactive imagination you've got there, to come up with a silly story like that." -- "It's not silly!" -- "Oh yes it is." -- "Then you tell me a story." -- "Oh? What kind?" -- "A love story!" she said, clapping her hands with a huge smile. -- Art looked her up and down. "Aren't you kind of young for that?" Then he pondered. "Actually, I have just the story in mind."
When he'd finally managed to get it just right, someone stepped out of from the trees behind him, snapping his concentration. A female voice called out, "Drop the staff, now." He saw Selena look up, her eyes widened.
"Ah crap," Art said, then asked as he looked at Selena, "I'm such an idiot. If you could find me out here, how could I have thought others wouldn't as well?" Even has said this, his mind raced, trying to make sense of the situation. He'd completely dropped his guard, doing that little performance for the girl; hadn't thought to listen for anyone else's approach. From the fact that this woman was speaking to him, it didn't seem they had any particularly hostile intentions, and at any rate he had no armor on him, held naught but his staff with some bones on it. The accoster stood behind him, so he'd no idea how well armed and armored the woman was, or if she had any allies. And he had Selena to protect as well. One wrong move from him and her life could well come under threat. It didn't leave him much of an option.
"All right, dropping," he said, Art dropped the staff, then raised both arms and a hand up into the air before turning around. "Liene."
The sister had her spear pointed right at his jugular, a flaming hatred in her eyes. Behind her stood two of her fellow sisters whom he recognized from yesterday's burlesque: Orianna and Elly. Both of them had their arrows nocked to their bows, ready to draw at a moment's notice. All three stood covered in gambeson, wearing gloves and boots, and helms strapped over their heads.
Liene reached down and picked up Art's staff. "Necroturgy." She spat at the ground. "I remember you. Art, was it? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't strike you down where you stand."
Inwardly he cursed himself. He'd known the sisterhood, after their devastating loss of the monastery to invaders using such weapons, would not appreciate him using the same; and yet he'd done so anyway. He'd taken insufficient precautions, and now he'd gotten himself into a potentially very dangerous situation. All because he'd wanted to be as prepared as possible for any eventuality. The irony.
"Hey, you're not seriously going to kill me just for moving some bones around, are you? It's not like I've been robbing any graves," he joked, hoping to set the trio at ease. He turned to look at Selena, who seemed a mix of shocked and ready to cry. He needed not say another word to imply: Here is an innocent little girl who would see your terrible deed if you performed them here and now; surely you will not do that, if not for my sake, then at least for hers?
"One… good… reason." -- "I helped fight the invaders," Art sputtered. -- "Making a preposterous claim such as that? You shame yourself." -- Art put forth his right arm. "This is testament to that fact."
"Really?" retorted Liene. "And with what weapon had you fought? Was it by any chance the very same?" she pounded the staff's crescent end upon the forest floor. -- "No, I had a sword…" -- "Then where is it now?" -- "I lost it when I lost my hand, may heaven be my witness!"
"We shall see." Liene then looked from Orianna to Elly. "Ring a bell at all?" Art looked at the two sisters as well, his heart sinking. He'd fought the invaders, yes, but he'd only truly done that once he'd fled the monastery. By then, the sisters had either fled, or been captured, or been killed. And before then, he'd rushed to join the battle, but events had conspired to make it so he never really had the chance, not until the beast had appeared before him; and then he had fled. And, though he had the opportunity to earlier, he hadn't reported having done such to any of the sisters yesterday, when they'd be much more willing to entertain his claim than they were now.
"I don't recall seeing him fight by our side," said Orianna. -- "Me neither," said Elly. -- Liene humphed and turned back to Art with an air of finality. "Well." -- Art felt his heart had sunk into the pit of his stomach.
"But elder sister," added Elly, "You recall what it was like at the time. In the heat of the moment… I can't very well say who I remember seeing. Besides, he might not have been fighting alongside us, but who knows? Perhaps another sister can attest to his claim. Let us take him back to the village, and if no sister comes forth to testify for him, it wouldn't be too late to kill him then." But, it needed not saying, kill Art now and if it later turns out he had indeed fought alongside the others, then it would be too late to undo the act.
Liene turned back to Art, leering. "You should thank her, you know." -- "Yes, thank you Elly, thank--" -- Then he said no more, for Liene swung the staff, crashing it into the side of his head.